Ray Allen handled his introduction as a member of the Miami Heat/ official exit from the Celtics with grace and gratitude.
It would be nice if Celtics fans could do the same.
Laundry is all you're rooting for if you are now feverishly condemning a player who two months ago was revered as part of the tapestry of a beloved team. He's still the same dead-eye shooter. He's still the same diligent, polished professional. He is still the same articulate spokesman for juvenile diabetes, which has afflicted his son Walker. He still has the same affinity for the city, fans and franchise.
"I'll always be a Celtic no matter what," said Allen, who referred to the Celtics as "us" in his Heat intro on Wednesday. "...I don't care what people say about me. I'll always stay true to the city of Boston and the fans there. They've been great to me. I'll always consider that place home."
The man with one of the game's all-time sweetest strokes has left a sour taste in the mouth of many Celtics supporters, bypassing Boston's two-year $12-million offer to ink a three-year, $9-million-and-change deal with the Heat.
Fine. But Based on the hue and cry that has gone up about Allen hooking on with the Heat you would think that he had renounced his entire five-year tenure as a Celtic, pawned his championship ring for a couple of Jet Skis he can tool around Biscayne Bay on, and called Rajon Rondo a dangerous socialist.
OK, so that's hyperbole. But so are the cries from the Parishioners of the Parquet that Allen has committed an unforgivable act of perfidy, forsaking logic, loyalty and an additional $3 million to join the hated Heat.
If you liked or admired Allen before, you still should. It's just impossible to root for him because he's on the Celtics' most heated rival. Understandable.
What I don't get is why some fans are taking it so personally and taking shots at the NBA's all-time leading 3-point marksmen.
Was it not universally acknowledged that when the Big Three epoch came to a close Allen was the most likely to depart? Allen simply did it on his terms and not those of Celtics president of basketball operation Danny Ainge.
If the Celtics' trade deadline deal with Memphis had gone through, a swap that would have sent Allen to Memphis for O.J. Mayo, the result would be the same. The reaction would not, however.
When a player gets traded or has his name swish about in trade talks like a glass of Chardonnay at a wine tasting it's just business. But when a player executes his right to play elsewhere, it's a personal affront and an act of basketball betrayal, so much so that the owner of the team goes on local radio and punctuates a statement about how he'll remember the player by saying he'll remember that he left the Celtics for the Heat.
Really, Wyc? That's as memorable as Allen scoring 51 points against the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs in 2009, or hitting seven 3-pointers in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals a day after his son had been diagnosed with diabetes, or the game-winning 3-pointer he sunk against the Toronto Raptors in just his second game as a Celtic?
(Check out the celebration after the Raptors win. It looks like the Celtics just won the NBA title.)
Allen made the type of decision that owners and organizations make all the time -- a business decision. He did what was in his best interests, just like the Celtics were doing what was in theirs by exploring trades for him in 2010 and last year and offering him a two-year deal instead of the three-year deals they gave Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry.
Allen concluded that if he were going to accept a diminished role as a reserve it was easier to swallow elsewhere. He determined that being fourth on the marquee in Miami behind LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was preferable to taking a back seat in Boston's Core Four. He surmised he would have more reliable crunch-time minutes with Miami than competing for those minutes with Terry and Avery Bradley. He concluded his professionalism had begun to be taken for granted by the Celtics.
It would make sense if Allen were a bit irked that the team gave Terry, who will turn 35 in September, a three-year deal. At age 35, Allen garnered a two-year, $20 million deal from the Green in 2010.
Allen bears responsibility for this basketball break-up too. He shouldn't be airing dirty laundry on his way out the door and doing a drive-by on Rajon Rondo's reputation.
He should understand that Bradley's emergence is just part of the circle of life in the NBA. He should recognize that Garnett is a sine qua non part for the Celtics.
But Allen was always the member of the Big Three/Core Four who had to sacrifice the most -- shots, minutes, pride -- and he was always the one most easily sacrificed by the team in trade proposals.
That's an uneasy existence, and it's one that will make a player overly sensitive to slights, both perceived and real.
Allen was also the player most directly threatened by the ascension of Rondo. It's not surprising that they wouldn't have a good relationship. It had to rankle Allen, a pro's pro, that he was being supplanted on the masthead by a player whose occasionally peevish behavior can border on unprofessional.
Allen had lost both his standing in the team's hierarchy of stars and his starting role after Bradley played so well in his ankle-injury absence.
He decided that if he was going to enter a step-back phase of his career he wanted to do it with a new team.
However, he's still the same old Ray, even in somebody else's laundry.
It's seems fitting that as we're on the cusp of a holiday that celebrates freedom we talk about the NBA, which is in the midst of its free agency period, a perilous time that's tries men's souls and their knowledge of the Byzantine collective bargaining agreement. No luxury taxation without mid-level exceptions and Bird rights representation is not quite as catchy as the original rallying cry.
Here are a half-dozen hoops thoughts:
1. The decision to bring Ray Allen back to the Celtics is going to be dictated by role, not remuneration.
It's questionable whether Allen would be content taking a backseat in the backcourt, especially with the Celtics bringing in Jason Terry on a mid-level exception deal.
Allen is the consummate professional. Publically, he handled losing his starting spot to Avery Bradley in a dignified matter, but there was enough chatter from folks around the team about his displeasure with becoming a reserve that it raises questions about him accepting a diminished role moving forward. One of the single most important developments of last season was the unexpected development of Bradley. Making any move that blocks the growth of Bradley, who is coming off shoulder surgery, is counterproductive.
The NBA's all-time leading 3-point marksmen is committed to exploring other options; he's scheduled to take visits to both the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Clippers this week, neither of which can offer as much green as the Green. The Celtics have a two-year, $12 million deal on the table. But the Clippers, who can pay up to $5 million a year, could offer Allen a starting role. Miami, which can squeeze Allen in with the tax-payer mid-level exception of $3 million per season, can't do that. It can provide an opportunity to knock down wide open jumpers and win another NBA title without having to fight Terry and Bradley for crunch-time minutes.
2. The famed Three-Year Plan is really the only one the Celtics have. While the extension of the championship window has a lot to do with the Celtics remarkable renaissance last season, it's also a reminder of the reality of Boston as an NBA destination. Big-name, in-their-prime NBA free agents or free-agents-to-be aren't walking through that door, even if it is to play for the most storied team in the game, to play under coach Doc Rivers and to play with Rajon Rondo.
The Celtics simply don't have the lure of Los Angeles, Miami, New York/Brooklyn, Dallas, or even Chicago. That's a reflection on the climate of the city (meteorologically and socially) and the misplaced priorities of certain members of this generation of NBA players. It's also why the Celtics are so eager to bring the band back together -- because there is little alternative.
3. Celtics first-round pick Jared Sullinger's something-to-prove attitude should fit right in on a team that has a trademark on defying conventional wisdom.
Sullinger was introduced to media for the first time Monday, and it was obvious he was irked by his precipitous drop in the draft and the characterization of him as an unathletic power forward with a bad back.
Remember that there were questions about Rob Gronkowski's balky back when the Patriots drafted him in 2010. Some teams took Gronk, who sat out the entire 2009 college football season after surgery for a bulging disc, off their board, the primary reason he was available to the Patriots in the second round. If Sullinger can have half the impact on the Celtics that Gronkowski has had on the Patriots then the Celtics have another first-round draft steal.
4. After watching the NBA Finals, I had to revise my point guard rankings and put Rondo ahead of Russell Westbrook.
Both had huge games against the Miami Heat in defeat -- Rondo scored 44 in an overtime loss and Westbrook had 43. However, the Heat had a harder time containing Rondo, who averaged 20.9 points and 11.9 assists while shooting nearly 49 percent from the floor in the conference finals, than it did Westbrook (27 points, 6.6 assists, 43.3 field goal percentage) because when Rondo got into the lane Miami didn't know if he was going to score or distribute.
That dual-threat created a quandary for the Heat that created offense for other Celtics.
Whereas Rondo got his teammates involved and got them easy baskets and open looks, Westbrook, a fearless scorer, failed to find a way to get teammate James Harden more involved in the Finals. Harden scored in single digits in three of the five games of the series and it would have been four if he hadn't tallied 11 points in garbage time of Game 5. The majority of that responsibility belongs to Harden, but part of a point guard's job is creating for others and piloting the team.
5. Kendrick Perkins's role as guardian of the rim has been overstated since his departure.
Another leftover Finals thought, Miami's victory once and for all dispelled the misguided notion that if Perkins had still been on the Celtics when they faced the Heat in the 2011 playoffs he would have prevented LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from getting to the rim.
Miami averaged 45.2 points per game in the paint in the Finals and 44.3 percent of their points came in the paint. Against the Celtics in the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals, Miami scored 39.4 percent of its points in the paint and averaged 37.6 points per game in the paint. Perk blocked three blocks in the NBA Finals, or half as many as Wade.
When the games were on the line Perkins was most often on the pine, not clogging the lane. He didn't play at all in the fourth in three of the five Finals games and was on the court for 12 seconds in another (Game 2). Perk logged a total of 6 minutes and 11 seconds in the fourth quarter and scored two fourth-quarter points while pulling down one fourth-quarter rebound.
6. The NBA is a great league with a great product, but its offseason and free agency period has to be among the most convoluted and stultifying for fans to follow.
Deciphering federal tax code is easier reading than comprehending the esoteric CBA, a confusing maze of loopholes, exceptions and codicils. You practically need to be an expert in jurisprudence to know what your team can and can't do.
Few pro sports CBAs are simple documents, and they're all full of provisions and qualifiers. But the NBA's is the worst. Most fans of the NFL, NHL and major league baseball can quickly acquire at least a basic understanding of what their teams will and won't be able to do to augment their rosters via trades or free agency. What other sport needs a "trade machine" to tell you whether a deal can be made or not?
With last year's lockout, the league and the players missed a great opportunity to simplify and streamline the CBA to make player procurement easier for fans to follow. Perhaps, the NBA is just following the American way because one concept this great country embraces nearly as much as freedom is bureaucracy.
Life is full of what-ifs, and sports is no different.
It's hard to watch Kevin Durant in the NBA Finals and not wonder what if? What if instead of burying jumpers and opponents' hopes and unfurling his arms for finger rolls like a human measuring tape in Oklahoma City, Durant had taken his talents to Causeway Street?
It's the ultimate hoops hypothetical, one that is interesting to contemplate with Durant's Thunder facing the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals and the Celtics at an organizational crossroads. Would Boston have been better off with a decade-plus of Durant's singular talent or five (and counting) glorious, memorable, enjoyable years with the Big Three, whose basketball biological clocks have been ticking from the moment they were assembled.
Imagine wiping away the last five years of Boston basketball, all of it -- no Big Three, no Banner No. 17, no Ubuntu, no Kevin Garnett pounding his chest and the boards, no Ray Allen raining 3-pointers, no resurgent runs to the 2010 NBA Finals and 2012 Eastern Conference finals.
In exchange for forfeiting all of that you get the joy of watching Durant, already a three-time NBA scoring champion at the tender age of 23, author unadulterated greatness and evoke the zeal and zeitgeist of the Bird Era.
Durant and the Big Three are inexorably linked. It was losing out on the possibility of picking Durant (or Greg Oden) that gave rise to the Big Three in the summer of 2007.
The Celtics were an ignominious outfit during the 2006-2007 season, dropping a franchise-record 18 straight games. Pierce was unhappy and hurt, withering on the vine with the Celtics mired in a combination of immaturity and futility.
These Celtics were green in every sense of the word. If you've blocked out these dark days I have four words for you: Sebastian Telfair, point guard.
The one saving grace for the Celtics was that they finished with the second-worst record in the league and the second-best chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick.
Five years later, the choice is a no-brainer, and it's easy to lampoon Portland for picking Oden No. 1. But back then it was hotly-debated. (Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has always been a bit nebulous on whether he would have selected Durant or Oden. I have it on good authority that it would have been Durant.)
No one knew that Oden was the Benjamin Button of NBA centers and a direct descendant of Sam Bowie. Durant was a frail, lithe, scoring machine from the University of Texas who couldn't bench 185 pounds.
The disappointment was palpable in the city the night of May 22, 2007 when deliverance became disappointment. The Celtics, who had a 19.9 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick, instead ended up with the fifth pick. Portland, Seattle (now OKC) and Atlanta had the ping-pong balls bounce its way.
Ainge then went to Plan B, as in Big Three, acquiring Allen from Seattle (now OKC) and Garnett from Minnesota.
Some Celtics fans were incensed the team had parted with power forward Al Jefferson, a cross between Moses Malone and Kevin McHale in their minds, to acquire Garnett.
There are likely fans who feel the same way about swapping the Big Three era for a Durant epoch -- that it's hoops heresy.
Admittedly, it's difficult to take a sure-fire championship off the board, but Durant has a chance to win multiple titles.
He is as unguardable a player as there is in the league, a nearly 7-foot shooting guard/small forward who shoots over the top of smaller players with unlimited range and glides past those of equal height with ease. Not even LeBron James can stop him without fouling.
Durant has scored 36 and 32 points in the first two games of the Finals, and shot 57 percent from the field.
"KD is an unbelievable talent," said James. "I think we all know that, we all see that. He can make every shot on the floor."
I respect, admire and applaud the Big Three. They deserve all the parquet panegyrics they received this postseason for their resolve, resilience and unbreakable esprit de corps. But ... a 10-year title window is better than a three-turned-five-year one.
There was a mercenary quality to the Big Three. Pierce was always ours, but strangely wasn't embraced like prior great Celtics until Garnett and Allen arrived.
Garnett and Allen became true Celtics, but they belonged to someone else first. They were Hessians who raised the franchise from the depths and a banner to the rafters. We borrowed their greatness, forged elsewhere. KG belongs more to Minnesota than to us, and Allen's best years were spent in Milwaukee and Seattle.
The Celtics got a fast-food championship. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not the same fan experience as what's happening in Oklahoma City.
Or what could have happened in Boston. The Celtics would have started out with a starting five of Durant, Jefferson, Rajon Rondo, Pierce and Perkins. That's three young stars in their primes, the best pure scorer in franchise history, and a rugged center/enforcer.
Instead of playing with a trigger-happy point guard in Russell Westbrook, Durant would have Rondo, the best table-setter this side of Martha Stewart. Instead of playing with a Pierce facsimile in James Harden, he would have the real thing. Instead of having no post presence, he would have had Jefferson.
The thought of Durant spotting up on the wing where Allen does now or taking alley-oop passes from Rondo or running the pick-and-roll with Jefferson is enough to elicit saliva.
Maybe Pierce would have asked out, not wanting to be part of another rebuilding effort. But one look at Durant's talent and he would have thought twice.
That's what the possibility of having Durant in green makes you do.
The Celtics' loss to the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night was the end of a dream, the end of the season and, in all likelihood, the end of an era, South Florida serving as the sepulchre for the union of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
The enduring legacy of the Big Three (or Core Four, with Rajon Rondo) goes beyond hanging Banner No. 17 in the rafters and always hanging tough in the face of adversity. It's restoring the phrase Celtic Pride to the organization's lexicon, making basketball relevant in Boston again/Boston once again relevant in basketball and finally, ushering in the era of NBA superfriends.
It was Boston's Big Three that begat, necessitated really, the Miami mercenaries that sent them home on Saturday. The fourth quarter of Game 7, when Miami's triumvirate outscored the Celtics', 28-7, was like watching a bulky laptop try to compete with an iPad. The Celtics had been supplanted by a newer, sleeker, more advanced model with a faster processor and more capability.
It was not a coincidence that during the 2008 Summer Olympics, less than two months after the Big Three won the NBA title, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh first hatched their plan to ultimately unite their talents in South Beach. The Heat's unholy trinity, formed two summers later, was in direct response to the Celtics.
Now, it's Boston's turn to formulate a response to the Heat's trio. The question that must be asked is how to do the Celtics, eliminated by Miami in back-to-back seasons, beat the Heat? Rebuild and hope to hit the free agent lottery in 2013 and/or 2014 or reload?
It's not standing pat and bringing the Big Three back intact for an encore. That's a nice notion, but not a winning one, so says NBA history.
The early 1970s New York Knicks were supplanted by the Tommy Heinsohn-coached (where do you think he got his ever-lasting ire for referees?) Celtics in 1974. The classic Big Three Celtics of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish gave way to the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons in 1988. Those Pistons were preempted by Michael Jordan's Bulls in 1991. The Core Four Celtics usurped Chauncey Billups' Pistons, who had advanced to six straight Eastern Conference finals.
What all those clubs have in common is that they never bounced back to beat the teams that superseded them.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he plans to offer contracts to free agents Kevin Garnett, 36, and Ray Allen, who is slated for ankle surgery Wednesday and his 37th birthday next month.
If the Celtics can coax a resurgent Garnett, who averaged 19.2 points per game and 10.3 rebounds per game in the postseason, back in green for another season then the idea that the Celtics can attempt to merely retool San Antonio-style instead of rebuild has validity. The Celtics have no viable replacement at center for Garnett on the horizon and legitimate NBA big men are scarce.
If KG retires or decides to bang his head into the basket support and pound his chest elsewhere then dark days are ahead for the Parishioners of the Parquet, including a possible trade of Paul Pierce. In that Banner 18-razing scenario, Rajon Rondo really is, as hizzoner referred to him, "Hondo." It was John Havlicek who served as the bridge connecting the Russell-era Celtics and the title teams in the mid-70s.
There was a reason that Allen was red-eyed and reflective in his post-game presser. He has likely played his last game in green, the most dispensable of the Big Three at this point. The Celtics already have his successor in Avery Bradley, whose emergence was the most significant development of the season.
Allen, who will draw interest around the league, is not returning unless he takes a hometown discount in both contract value and length and a reduced role to match.
Funds for Allen would be better spent trying to upgrade elsewhere. Making a run at restricted free agent centers Roy Hibbert and JaVale McGee could be worthwhile, but RFAs on the level of Jason Thompson of Sacramento and J.J. Hickson of Portland might be more realistic big man options.
Brandon Bass worked out well, but overpaying to retain the power forward, who is likely to exercise his opt-out, would be regrettable, especially because for chunks of the playoffs coach Doc Rivers was loath to use him late in games.
More athleticism and depth are essential to the Celtics. A healthy Jeff Green who resembles his Oklahoma City animus would certainly help there. Green is technically a restricted free agent, but after the Celtics stuck with him through his heart ailment it's hard to believe he wouldn't reciprocate their loyalty.
Rondo proved this postseason he can be a go-to scorer when needed (see: Eastern Conference finals Game 2), but the Celtics still need more players who can create their own offense against Miami.
Ainge has always been infatuated with O.J. Mayo, a restricted free agent. He reportedly tried to send Allen to Memphis for Mayo at the trade deadline.
Mayo was a highly-hyped high school hoops prodigy who drew comparisons to LeBron, but has never lived up to that promise as a pro. Still, he can be a volume scorer -- he averaged 18 points per game his first two years in the league -- who can get his own shot. He is also a career 37.5 percent 3-point shooter.
Mayo has been marginalized in Memphis. In Boston, he'd still be coming off the bench, but with a green light to shoot.
The Celtics have also been linked to San Antonio RFA Danny Green, who besides having a perfect name is a strong defensive player who can stroke the three.
The Celtics also have a pair of first-round picks in a deep draft (No. 21 and No. 22) to play with.
Ainge has a lot of options to improve his team, but Year Six of a Three-Year Plan isn't really one of them.
As Kevin Garnett said in the guttural scream he let out after the Celtics won the NBA title four years ago, anything is possible -- especially when we're talking about these Celtics.
It's possible to have instant chemistry and win a championship. It's possible to go 27-27 to end the 2009-2010 regular season and then return to the NBA Finals as a No. 4 seed. It's possible to be six minutes away from another title and watch it evaporate in Los Angeles. It's possible to be down 2-0 to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals and rally with three straight wins. It's possible to have the head-case Heat on the ropes and then submit your worst performance of the playoffs in the potential clincher on your home floor, getting blown out 98-79 to set the stage for a climactic Game 7 in South Florida.
And, yes, it's possible to take your talents and full suitcases -- "Pack for a week" was the practical and impudent message on the dry-erase board in the Celtics' locker room -- to South Beach and win a Game 7.
These Celtics are equal parts endearing and maddening, underestimated and overconfident, unflappable and indignant. They're a team at odds with the odds and constantly courting adversity.
"This team has been about adversity all year long," said captain Paul Pierce, who turned in a 4-for-18, 9-point dud in Game 6. "You know so this is not going to be nothing new. It's been tough for us all year long to get to the point that we want to be at. Why wouldn't it be tough now? Winning is hard. Getting to the Finals is hard, and this is as hard as it gets. I think we're prepared for it."
I can't tell you that the Celtics are going to win Game 7 in Miami. This series has been too unpredictable and too full of Maalox moments. Both teams have a right to feel like they should have won it already. The Celtics easily could have won Game 2 in Miami. The Heat was a Dwyane Wade 3-pointer away from stealing Game 4.
The Celtics have outplayed Miami for the bulk of the series. The Heat can point to the fact that they've twice had dominant, virtually wire-to-wire wins.
I will say with virtual certainty that the Celtics will submit a better effort in Game 7 than they did in Game 6 Thursday night at the Garden.
Win, lose, or for those of you watching in Maine, tie, in Game 7, the Celtics are going to do it huffing, hustling and scowling. There are horror-movie villains who have died easier than a group that has come to define Celtic Pride.
A silver lining from last night's loss is that the Heat still hasn't proven it can withstand the pressure of a rubber-glove tight, elimination game.
The 1972 presidential election was more contested than Game 6. The Celtics trailed by 13 at the half and never cut Miami's lead below double-digits in the second half.
The most damning stat of the playoffs for Miami is this one -- the Heat are 0-6 when trailing after three quarters. All the front-runner talk is not just a media creation. Whether Miami has the requite reservoir of mental toughness and execution under fire to succeed in the crucible of a close Game 7 is still open for debate.
What is not up for debate is that LeBron James had a signature moment in Game 6.
The NBA's resident Atlas, James had the weight of the basketball world on his shoulders, and he shrugged it off. LeBron was supposed to be a big-game choker and the Celtics were supposed to have a stranglehold on the series, but LBJ grabbed control of this game and never let go.
The Decision-maker missed his first shot, a 19-foot jumper, then hit his next 12, before finally misfiring again with seven seconds left in the half, when he attempted a long 3-pointer over Mickael Pietrus. In between he scored 30 points.
The biggest play James made though wasn't a field goal; it was a foul drawn. James gave Pierce a taste of his own medicine with 5:40 left in the second quarter, coaxing the captain into the air with an upfake and then launching into him. That was Pierce's third foul. It took him out of the game, both literally and figuratively.
Pierce never found the flow, shooting a ghastly 2 of 12 in the third quarter. At the end of three quarters, Pierce had as many field goals (three) as personal fouls.
James finished with 45 points and 15 rebounds, while dishing out 5 assists and a heaping helping of crow for his critics to dine on. It was the first time in his career that when his team faced elimination on the road it came away with a victory. James had been 0-4 in such situations, including a pair of losses at TD Garden, the latter of which closed the curtain on his Cleveland career and spurred his move to Miami. His teams are now 3-6 in elimination situations.
LeBron bucked conventional wisdom to extend his season. Sounds familiar, huh?
Sadly, it's possible that Thursday night was the last time we'll see Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo on the TD Garden court together, a cruel notion considering the effort they submitted was in no way representative of what the last five years of Celtic basketball have been about.
It's possible that they'll do in Miami what they've done so many times -- beat the odds and extend their championship window -- and we'll be watching them in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.
At this point, anything really is possible for a defiant team that defies prognostication.
It only counted as one game, but Game 4 felt like four different games crammed into one.
There was the one where the Celtics made Miami's defense look like it was being played by a bunch of parking cones and opened up an 18-point lead, the one where Miami mounted a steady comeback while the Celtics steadily missed shots, the one where the teams swapped big shots and the lead in the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter, and the one that served as the coda, with both Paul Pierce and LeBron James, who hadn't fouled out in his previous 106 playoff games, stunningly relegated to spectators after fouling out in overtime.
"Words can't even describe the type of game it is," said Paul Pierce, who had a team-high 23 points, despite fouling out 38 seconds into OT.
He's right, but we'll try. It was bizarre, schizophrenic, dramatic, engrossing, nerve-wracking, heart-stopping. That last adjective is courtesy of Dwayne Wade, who missed 10 his first 12 shots and, fitting for this game, nearly sank the game-winner in overtime. Wade (20 points) had the Parishioners of the Parquet checking their pulse after his potential game-winning 3-pointer had a brief dalliance with the basket.
It was the type of game the Celtics had to win, and they did, 93-91, to even the Eastern Conference finals at two games a piece. It could also be a turning point in the series. If you're a Celtics fan you can look at this series two ways: one is that the Celtics could easily be up 3-1 after outplaying Miami in all but Game 1, and the other is that they could be staring at a 3-1 deficit today if Wade had delivered.
However, there is only one way to look at the shifting of the pressure in the series heading into Game 5. The Celtics, who returned home down 2-0 and facing the end of their season and an era, have put the burden of proof back on the Heat and James.
This series is not only a contrast of styles; it's a contrast of personalities. The Celtics are a team that thrives on doing things the hard way. The Heat is at its best when it can hit the basketball version of the Staples easy button.
It's no surprise that Miami dropped to 0-5 this postseason when trailing after three quarters.
If this series is determined by mental toughness then the Celtics have a clear edge. The Celtics had ample opportunity to bemoan their fate in Game 4, especially after Pierce fouled out 38 seconds into OT, and instead bared down.
"We're built for adversity," said Keyon Dooling. "We've gone through so much that our personality has taken on being a resilient, grind-it-out-type of team."
It's a trait the Celtics have had since the union of Kevin Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen.
No one would describe the Heat that way. They're viewed as South Florida frontrunners, the team that thought it was entitled to not one, not two, not three, not four... titles.
Miami has to prove, as it did against the Indiana Pacers, that it can stop griping and complaining and start competing. Rajon Rondo's halftime verbal shot at the Heat rang true after the game, when James was asked about fouling out for only the fourth time in 796 NBA games (playoffs and regular season).
"I don’t foul out," said James. "If I’m going to foul out, that sixth foul, I wish I would have earned it and it had actually been a foul on me. Whatever."
James and the Heat have to demonstrate that they're not the rabbit-eared bunch that wilted and waned at times last year, including in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.
There are already signs of cracks in Miami's mental armor. A team that shot 77.5 percent in the regular season from the free throw line is shooting 64.9 percent in this series. LeBron has missed 17 of 46 free throws in the series, including 14 in the last three games.
LeBron's baggage -- the accusations, some unfair, that's he lacks resiliency, fortitude and the indomitable will to win of Kobe or Jordan -- has become the Heat's basketball cross to bear. James is the most persecuted and picked apart great player in NBA history, and now that judgment is upon his entire team.
Like his headband, these criticisms press on James's head.
Today, few are recalling there would have been no overtime, no final act in the drama, if James hadn't sunk a clutch 3-pointer to tie the game at 89. The topic of discussion is that once again LeBron passed the ball and passed on an opportunity for a signature game-winning shot, skipping a pass to Udonis Haslem after he was double-teamed on the final possession of regulation.
The diffident label is one that LeBron can't escape. He won't be able to until he wraps his hands around the Larry O'Brien Trophy. He gets it from critics, fans and, in the most visceral display, opponents like Indiana reserve guard Lance Stephenson, who clasped his own neck following a missed James' free throw to express a sentiment that many have expressed about James -- he's not clutch.
That perception becoming reality was one of the Celtics' great hopes in this series. In order to get inside LeBron's brain, the Celtics had to give him and his team something to think about. Now, they have.
"We understand what it takes to win, but no one said it was easy," said James. "This is great. This is what the postseason is all about. It's about adversity and ups and downs. Like I said, you never get too high, and you never get too low. We look forward to Game 5."
That would sound more believable if it came out of the mouth of KG, Pierce, or Rondo. James could be sincere, or it could be false bravado to mask mounting anxiety.
We're about to find out.
It was fitting that Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett all did their post-game interviews in the same claustrophobic sliver of the Celtics locker room, a parcel of wood-paneled space between the door to the trainer's room and the post-game spread. They talked in the same manner that they had played -- with their backs against the wall.This was the last stand for the Core Four and everyone knew it. A loss to the NBA's South Beach nouveau riche and this Boston basketball revival was over. Nobody in the NBA comes back from down 3-0 and no team, no matter how gritty, is likely to accomplish it against a team with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in its employ.
These Celtics have made a habit of beating the odds in spectacular fashion -- the 24-point comeback against the Lakers in Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals and the unexpected 2010 run to the NBA Finals the two best examples -- but they knew what they were up against this time.
A profound and profane Garnett called it "desperation basketball." Call it preservation basketball after the Celtics scored a 101-91 victory over Miami Friday night at TD Garden.
"We're a team that is very, very, very, very gritty," said Keyon Dooling. "We just continue to hang in there. We're confident. We came out and we treated this like it was a Game 7. We wanted to leave everything on the court."
The parquet panegyrics for this group were already being prepared. But as Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Rajon Rondo have done so many times over the last five years when pushed to the brink they dug in their heels.
Garnett had his 11th double-double of the postseason, finishing with 24 points, 11 rebounds and eight impressive knuckle push-ups after being fouled hard by Udonis Haslem. Pierce needed 21 shots to score 23 points, but was a perfect 7 for 7 from the free throw line. Rondo (21 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds) continued his evolution into the Green's go-to guy, scoring 8 points in the fourth. Allen had another reassuring shooting night, going 4 for 8 for 10 points.
Sunday's Game 4 looms as another got-to-have-it game. Lose that one and it's likely that all is lost in the series. But the Celtics deserve at least a day to savor their triumph over the Heat, especially because there was the fear that Miami had already absorbed Boston's best shot in Game 2, an instant classic, highlighted by Rondo's 44-point tour de force and Miami's 47 free throw attempts.
Coach Doc Rivers tried to spin that deflating overtime defeat into a cause for confidence, pointing out what the Celtics could do better.
The first item on the checklist was getting the ball to Garnett, who shot just 6 of 18 in Game 2. KG was fed early and often. He scored three of the Celtics first six baskets and had 12 points on 5 of 6 shooting at the half.
Another area of home improvement for the Celtics was the bench. Dormant and dominated by Miami in the first two games, the Celtics' reserves answered the call of duty this time. Led by Dooling, who had five of his 7 points in the first quarter, the Boston reserves had eight points in the first quarter, or one more than they had in all of Game 2, when Miami's bench players outscored them, 25-7. More important was the defensive energy they displayed in helping to hold Miami to 27.8 percent shooting in the second quarter.
Rivers exhumed little-used forward Marquis Daniels with sublime results. The lithe Daniels sliced through the Miami defense with shrewd and opportunistic cuts and finished with 9 points. Daniels had played a total of seven minutes in the previous six games. He logged 7:24 in the first half Friday night, helping the Celtics build a 55-42 halftime lead.
"Marquis was phenomenal tonight. Keyon Dooling was phenomenal," said Rivers. "Every guy actually that came off the bench contributed for our basketball team. We needed it tonight."
The best news for Celtics fans was that scales of NBA justice seemed to tip in their favor. After two somewhat dubiously officiated games in Miami, the personal fouls in Game 3 were dead even at 24. James and Wade, who combined for 35 free throws in Game 2, took five in Game 3, all belonging to James (1-5). The duo had five fouls at halftime, one more than in all of Game 2.
Early on it looked like James was headed for an NBA Classics evening, dropping 16 in the first quarter. He finished with a mere 34. If it weren't for Bron-Bron's brilliance this game would have been a total blowout.
The Celtics led by 22 at the end of three quarters, but James made all manner of shots in the quarter to keep Miami from getting completely massacred. That proved important when the Heat used a 16-2 run to cut Boston's cushy lead to 91-82 with 5:41 to go. The Heat would creep as close as 95-87.
Many were wondering what Rondo would do for an encore after Game 2. It was not the stuff of Celtics lore, but rather a harmonious blending of facile facilitation and efficient offensive production. It was Rondo as maestro, instead of virtuoso.
Rondo is self-aware enough to realize now that he can no longer defer to the Big Three in the fourth quarter. It's his time and his team now.
"He's been timely in the scoring category all playoffs. He's had some big fourth quarters," Dooling said. "Obviously, we ask him to do a lot. He has to facilitate, make sure everybody gets off. We expect him to score his points. We expect him to rebound. We expect him to be a masterful play-caller. That's what happens when you pursue greatness."
The Celtics had heart. But they left TD Garden with something even more valuable.
"It's a series now. They have hope," said Miami forward Shane Battier.
Rajon Rondo is right. The Celtics do need to toughen up if they're going to be more than Ocean Drive roadkill for the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Allowing a virtual layup line as the Celtics did in Game 1 -- Miami had 19 layups -- is utterly unacceptable.
But the answer is not coming out tonight in Game 2 and turning AmericanAirlines Arena into a mosh pit, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade into tackling dummies and Miami's slam dunks into body slams. That's not the Celtics' game, especially with designated enforcer Kendrick Perkins now applying his frontcourt frontier justice in Oklahoma City. Perk was quite the deterrent Tuesday night when the Thunder allowed 120 points to the Spurs, no?
The Celtics are a tough team, but their don't-mess-with-us mien hasn't been defined by physical prowess as much as mental fortitude. That's the type of toughness the Celtics need against the Heat, the kind that allows you to prevail in a hostile environment against the odds, the kind that plants a seed of doubt in the opponent's psyche.
These Celtics are tough because they don't quit. They're undeterred by age or injury. They're hyper-competitive and uber-stubborn. That's the toughness advantage that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rondo, Ray Allen and Co. are supposed to enjoy in this series.
It's also what was missing from Game 1 once Miami pulled away in the third quarter. The Celtics became stagnated and frustrated. Trailing by 11, Boston's first four possessions of the fourth quarter of Game 1 went: Keyon Dooling hopeless 3-pointer, Ray Allen missed 20-foot jumper, Brandon Bass brutal missed jumper and Mickael Pietrus 24-foot prayer.
The closest shot was Bass's 17-footer, and this was with both Garnett and Rondo on the floor.
Rather than heeding Rondo's call to send James and Wade to the floor, I'd rather see Rondo and Pierce go to the free throw line, something that never happened in Game 1.
Going Olivia Newton-John ("physical, physical") with the Heat is not a recipe for success for the Green. It was the Celtics who became distracted when faced with physical play in their last series. In Game 4 against the 76ers, they blew an 18-point third quarter lead in part because Evan Turner and his cohorts resorted to chippy tactics. Afterwards, coach Doc Rivers declared his team lost its composure.
A bruise and bang strategy has already failed against the Heat in these playoffs. The Indiana Pacers tried to rough up the Heat. All they did was awaken the two-headed monster of LeBron and D-Wade.
Indiana's Tyler Hansbrough did exactly what Rondo has endorsed, sending Wade to the deck with a hard foul in Game 5, drawing blood -- and the Heat's ire. It didn't slow down Wade, and the Heat punked the Pacers with a pair of retaliatory flagrant fouls via hitmen Udonis Haslem and Dexter Pittman, prodding Celtics legend and Indiana president Larry Bird to label his team "soft"
The approach completely backfired on the Pacers, as it inspired Miami.
The way to undermine the Heat and make its best players uncomfortable is not to create physical challenges but mental ones, which is what Indiana did by outplaying them and taking a 2-1 series lead.
The Heat are labeled as fragile front-runners, a team that wilts under the weight of impossible expectations, endless enmity and enormous egos. When confronted with adversity they become unhinged.
Who can forget Wade heatedly bickering with coach Erik Spoelstra in the huddle during the Heat's Game 3 loss to the Pacers? Remember Spoelstra announcing that Heat players were crying in the locker room after a loss to the Bulls last year? How about Wade caterwauling after that same defeat that "The world is better now because the Heat is losing."
Mental stress is much more damaging to the Heat than physical stress. LeBron, one of the three most physically imposing forces in the history of basketball along with Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal, is built to withstand such punishment. There are gymnasts who don't roll on the ground as much as Wade, who seems to complete every acrobatic drive to the hoop with a trip to the floor.
Beating up the Heat isn't the way to beat them. Making them feel the pressure of their unfulfilled promise and confront the idea of another season without a championship is.
The only way for the Celtics to do that is to have KG, Rondo and Pierce produce offensively because the best defense against Miami's relay-race run-outs is a great offense. It's harder to run on made baskets.
The Celtics have now played six playoff games against the hated Heat and lost five. The one game they won came last year, when the Celtics Core Four outscored Miami's unholy hoops trinity of James, Wade and Chris Bosh, who is sidelined with an abdominal injury.
For the Celtics to win against the Heat last year four had to be greater than three. It wasn't and they lost.
The math is different this year because of Bosh's absence and Allen's ankle injury, but the Celtics Three and a Half Men have to be greater than Miami's dynamic duo. LeBron (32 points) and Wade (22) outscored Rondo, Garnett and Pierce by a score of 54-51 in Game 1.
That can't happen.
The great fear, however, is that James is now immune to any type of psychological warfare from the Celtics. He laughed in KG's face in Game 1 when Garnett was taunting him.
Monday night was the ninth time that James has scored 30 or more points against the Celtics in the Big Three Era in 19 playoff games. James now has a winning record against the Celtics in playoff games -- 10-9. The Jedi mind tricks might no longer work.
The Celtics have to make the game tougher on James and Wade, but acting tough isn't the answer. Displaying their trademark mental toughness is.
The Celtics' Eastern Conference semifinals series with the Philadelphia 76ers has been a series of lost opportunities. Now, it has the potential to be a series that is just lost.Reaching Game 7 for the Green has been like mindlessly following the siren song of a GPS to an unfamiliar address. You don't really grasp how you got there, but all that matters is that you arrived. So the Celtics are playing an elimination game tomorrow at TD Garden instead of taking their talents to South Beach for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat.
The Celtics are on the precipice of squandering a 3-2 series lead and an open invitation to reach the Eastern Conference final for the third time since 2008 after an 82-75 loss in Game 6 that was to basketball what City Hall Plaza is to urban aesthetics.
There are those who will point to the Celtics' uninspired first half of the regular season and their current collection of maladies (Avery Bradley's season-ending shoulder injury, Ray Allen's ankle and Paul Pierce's knee) and say the team has overachieved.
Painting the Celtics as the Little Team that Could makes for a nice story. However, in a postseason without Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard and with the Heat potentially sans their sole reliable big-man, Chris Bosh, bowing out to the upstart 76ers is not an acceptable denouement.
It simply is not, especially when you consider that the only reason this peculiar series is going the distance is because the Celtics have made goodwill donations to each of Philadelphia's wins.
In Game 2, the Celtics shot 23.5 percent in the third quarter. They basically ignored coach Doc Rivers' game plan and Kevin Garnett for three quarters. They battled back to take the lead late in a see-saw affair and still had a chance to tie trailing by 3 points with 12 seconds left. But Kevin Garnett was whistled for an illegal screen and Philly stole an 82-81 win.
In Game 4, the Celtics stormed out to a 14-0 lead against a Sixers team that had bowed its heads waiting for the guillotine to drop. They led by 18 in the third quarter. However, the Celtics shot just 11 of 35 in the second half and Rivers stuck with his small lineup too long in the fourth, as the Sixers escaped with a 92-83 win.
Game 6 saw an uninspired Celtics club deliver one of the worst-shooting performances of the New Big Three era -- 33 percent.
Further illustrating the point that the Celtics' losses in this series have been as much about their play as the 76ers is that Philadelphia's field goal percentage in its wins (41.2 percent) is lower than in its losses (43.8 percent). The 76ers have averaged 85.3 points per game in three victories and 89 points per game in three losses.
The 76ers have come up with some clutch shots and big plays from Andre Iguodala, Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday. But the degree of difficulty involved in this series has largely been of the Celtics own doing.
It's easy to peg the Celtics procrastinating personality as the culprit, but it's also tied to their on-court identity.
Rivers' oft-repeated mantra is it's a make-miss league. Viewed through the prism of his own jump-shooting team, it really is. In the Celtics' three wins in the series they've shot 49.1 percent from the floor. In three losses they've shot 39 percent.
The Celtics are a make-miss lot because they're a jump-shooting one. According to NBA.com stats, 26.6 percent of the Celtics' points in the playoffs have come on mid-range shots (defined as outside the paint, but inside the 3-point line). That's the highest percentage of any of the remaining playoff teams.
During the regular-season, the Celtics were tied (with the Sixers) for the NBA lead in percentage of points that came on mid-range shots (27.2 percent). In Boston's wins in this series they've averaged 44 points per game in the paint. In the losses, it dipped to 24.7.
The Celtics ranked second-to-last in the league in percentage of points in the paint (38.1 percent), only the New Jersey Nets scored a lower percentage of their points from inside the paint.
That's a tough way to make a living, especially with a team whose stars have a lot of mileage on their NBA odometers.
The player most adept at getting into the paint for the Celtics is point guard Rajon Rondo. That's why Rondo, a tepid performer in Game 6, will determine if this is it for the current Core Four.
The mere idea of the trio of Garnett, Pierce and Allen having their run ended by a team that is the eighth seed in the East, went 10-14 over its final 24 games, and has been blown off the court twice by the Celtics in this series, makes one want to bang their head against a basket support like KG does with his calvous dome.
Losing to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the conference final is an honorable demise for the New Big Three era -- anyone still think the Pacers would be a tougher opponent for the Celtics? -- but losing to the 76ers is a dishonorable and disappointing end.
Sorry, but like Pierce, that's a hard truth.
Six months ago, when the season tipped off on Christmas Day at Madison Square Garden, if any of the Parishioners of the Parquet had been told that they could sign up a binding contract that would ensure the Celtics' path to the Eastern Conference finals was the Atlanta Hawks and the 76ers they would have brought their own pen or signed in crimson if necessary.
Game 7 is a destination the Celtics shouldn't have arrived at, but they're taking the route they always do -- Hard Way.
They're a make-miss team in the ultimate make-miss game. Either they make it to the Eastern Conference final or they miss a golden opportunity.
During the Celtics' gratifying playoff run, Kevin Garnett has become a basketball version of David Ortiz. Counted out, Garnett has staged a remarkable revival, evoking some of his best days.
The Big Ticket and Big Papi are kindred souls of Boston sports. Both are 36 years old, both came to Boston from Minnesota, both have been doubted, dismissed and labeled diminished -- or worse -- as they approach the final straightaways of their distinguished careers.
Garnett is never going to average 24 points or 13.9 rebounds per game again, as he did during the 2003-04 season. Ortiz is never going to drive in 148 runs, as he did in 2005, or slug 54 home runs, as he did in 2006. But that's not the point.
The point is that both KG and Big Papi are performing at a level that few thought they would be able to reach at the advanced stages of their careers. They are defying aging with open defiance of both Father Time and those who had written their epitaphs.
They are also redefining what it means to be past one's prime, their excellence in lockstep with their contempt for their naysayers.
KG and Big Papi's renaissance fare was on display Monday night at roughly the same time, as they helped propel their teams to important victories, separated by 404 miles and a few channels on the cable box.
Garnett, who has hopped in the hoops Delorean to become the go-to scorer for the Celtics in the postseason, dropped 20 points on the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday evening, as the Celtics took a 3-2 series lead with a 101-85 victory that put them one win away from a place few thought they would be three months ago -- the Eastern Conference finals.
With the Red Sox trailing the first-place Baltimore Orioles, 5-2, in the sixth inning, Ortiz jump-started a Red Sox rally with a mammoth home run that sailed out of Camden Yards, landing on bordering Eutaw Street like an artillery shell with seams.
That was the spark for a three-run sixth that allowed the Sox to tie the game. The Red Sox went on to claim an 8-6 victory -- their 9th in 11 games -- to pull back to .500 for the first time since April 30. Suddenly, a season on the brink may be on the brink of turning the corner.
Perhaps, then it was fitting that after the big win in Baltimore, Ortiz channeled his basketball counterpart in vituperating his detractors.
Ortiz was asked by ESPNBoston's Gordon Edes about the team meeting he called on May 11, a season-altering assembly in which the law was reportedly laid down to the team's laggard starting pitchers. It came the same night that Josh Beckett was boxed around by the Cleveland Indians in the wake of his ill-timed tee time.
Ortiz, the longest-tenured Red Sox, was indignant at the notion that up until that point anyone questioned his leadership -- or anything else.
"I don't get no respect," he told Edes. "Not from the media. Not from the front office. What I do is never the right thing. It's always hiding, for somebody to find out."
It was hard to read those words and not think of Garnett's public censure of the media 11 days earlier, after he dropped 28 points and 14 rebounds in the clinching-game of the Celtics' first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks.
A rejuvenated KG admonished his doubters, the ones who thought such dominant performances by him were only found on YouTube or NBA Classics on NBA-TV.
"...It's almost like you guys are shocked," said KG. "Like this ain't what I do every day, like this ain't what I was made for. It does come off disrespectful at times. I put a lot of work and time into this, and there are certain levels I expect from myself.
"I take this very seriously, so you guys calling me old...you have no idea what you are doing when you say those 'old' comments. I appreciate that. I don't read your columns, but it gets back to me."
You're welcome, Kevin.
Both KG and Big Papi turn the slightest questioning of their ability into a personal affront. Despite the difference in their public demeanors they're both intensely proud men. It's part of what makes them great, and has allowed them to thumb their noses at athletic actuarial tables.
It's obvious from his comments that Ortiz is still embittered by the fact the Sox have resigned him to playing for his contract each year and the way he was treated in 2009 and 2010, when glacial starts had commentators dancing on his grave and NESN asking fans if he should still be the DH.
He's not only still with the Sox, but atop the American League leaderboard. Ortiz ranks in the top 10 in the American League in batting average (.333), runs batted in (30), home runs (10) and on-base percentage (.402). Only Josh Hamilton has a better AL slugging percentage than Ortiz's .616 and his 1.019 OPS is third-best in the AL.
The once-declining DH leads all of major league baseball in extra-base hits with 25, and since the start of the 2010 season, only five players have more extra-base hits.
Garnett has averaged 19.3 points and 10.5 rebounds this postseason. The rebounding total matches what he put up during the 2007-08 playoffs, when the Celtics won Banner No. 17. He has twice as many blocks this postseason (18) than he had all of last postseason, and is just two blocks shy of his total from the 2009-10 postseason. That was accomplished in 23 playoff games.
Usually, in sports if something is too good to be true, it turns out it's not. We've learned that disappointing lesson too often, too many times.
Hopefully, Garnett and Ortiz are age-old exceptions in every way because it's too enjoyable to watch them buck the odds and carry their teams.
Whenever the best-point-guards-in-the-NBA debate -- a polarizing topic that raises voices at barbershops, office cubicles and places of bibulousness while turning the closest of friends into intellectual combatants -- is conducted, the strongest point made against Rajon Rondo in comparison to his peers is his lack of consistent points.
Rondo's contemporaries like Chris Paul (the man he was nearly traded for), Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker not only have to deliver the ball, but deliver points on a nightly basis for their teams to succeed. It's non-negotiable that if those guys don't score consistently their teams can't win.
Playing with three future Hall of Famers, Rondo's scoring has been a luxury, not a necessity. His shortcomings as a shooter muted by the Celtics' acclaimed trio. Feeding both the ball to and the egos of the Big Three has been his primary job.
But that has changed in these playoffs, and it certainly changed Wednesday night in the Celtics' 107-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. With Paul Pierce diminished by a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, and Ray Allen playing on a gimpy ankle, suddenly it has become incumbent upon Rondo to score.
With Pierce previously struggling in the series and at the start of Game 3, missing his first six shots, the Celtics needed Rondo to pick up the scoring slack. He grabbed the rope and tied the 76ers in knots with daring drives to the basket that made you think they should change the name of H-O-R-S-E to R-O-N-D-O.
Rondo submitted 23 points, 14 assists, and 6 rebounds with just one turnover. He shot 9 of 16 from the field, and most impressive was a perfect 4 for 4 from his personal waterloo -- the free-throw line.
A restive Rondo confronted the challenging of scoring like he did that hapless camera man in Atlanta.
"Teams dictate their defense by trying to play off of Rondo," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "When Rondo becomes an offensive threat then Kevin [Garnett] becomes a better offensive player. Ray and Paul are better offensive players because you can't spend the game trying to help off him.
"I thought he really set the tone for us."
What we are witnessing is the evolution of Rondo. Still only 26, he is like a tree that is growing and sprouting branches in new directions.
In Game 3, he wasn't facilitating and occasionally overpassing. He was dictating and totally taking over. Rondo scored 13 of the Celtics' 28 first-quarter points on 5 of 8 shooting.The NBA's assist champion registered only one in the first -- and it was a good thing.
Rondo scored 11 straight points for the Celtics in the first quarter. That bought time for Pierce to awake from his slumber and slam home a pair of dunks late in the quarter in a 25-second span that ignited both the Captain (24 points and 12 boards) and the Celtics.
"Offensively, Rondo really carried a great part of the load, and [KG] did also," said Pierce.
Rondo doled out five assists in the first half to go along with 17 points, tying him with Garnett, who finished with a team-high 27 points, for the team lead at the half.
But then in the third quarter, when the Celtics pulled away, Rondo turned back into an adept distributor with six assists in the quarter. It was a masterful performance. The Celtics shot 65 percent in the second quarter, and then followed that up with a 62.5-percent third quarter (10 of 16).
Games like these are more impressive than the triple-doubles for Rondo. The triple-doubles play to his established strengths -- rebounding and passing. He's always going to fill up a stat sheet with numbers like it's a Dow Jones stock ticker.
At times in the past, Rondo has been a timid shooter, but in these playoffs he has shot the ball without hesitation and with conviction. He might have been too eager to score in the clutch at the end of Game 2, as he appeared to wave off an open Allen.
Using his man as a free safety is now perilous strategy. Rondo scored 20 or more points eight times during the 66-game regular season. He has done it three times in eight playoff games.
Those are games that give us a glimpse of the future, that show he can take the baton from the Big Three. They're the games that show that Rondo can be more than an All-Star point guard. He is capable of being the focal point of a franchise.
Triple-doubles are like shiny trinkets at an antiques store. They catch the eye, but they're not necessarily the most valuable items on the shelves.
Even in Game 1 of this series, the most significant part of Rondo's play wasn't his triple-double (13 points, 12 rebounds and 17 assists). It was that after going 3 of 9 in the first three quarters, Rondo didn't shy away from shots LeBron James-style. He shot 3 of 6 in the fourth quarter, canning two jumpers from 18-feet and another from 19-feet.
The two best games Rondo has played in the playoffs thus far weren't his two triple-doubles. They're the 20-point, 16-assist outing he had against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 4 of the first-round, a game in which six of the eight field goals he made came from 18-feet and beyond, and Wednesday night's tour de force.
Both Rondo and the Celtics had something to prove to the 76ers after a pair of one-point games on the parquet.
"Obviously we had two close games at home, and we wanted to show these guys and send a message tonight, and I think we did a pretty good job of that," said Rondo.
Rondo sent a message of his own, not just to Philadelphia, but to the rest of the league that the days of playing him as just a pass-first point guard have passed.
A team that is in this position because they heeded the words of Al Green at the trade deadline -- "Let's Stay Together" -- was singing a different tune Monday night. This time the Green's mien was best summed up by channeling Denny Green.
After the Philadelphia 76ers evened this throwback Eastern Conference semifinals series at a game a piece with an 82-81 victory Monday evening at TD Garden, Paul Pierce was asked if the youthful 76ers had taken the Celtics by surprise with their fortitude and fearlessness in the first two games, a pair of one-point affairs on the parquet.
The suggestion of the Celtics underestimating the Sixers had Pierce parroting the infamous words Green, then coach of the Arizona Cardinals, uttered after his team squandered a 23-3 second-half lead to Celtics coach Doc Rivers's beloved Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football in 2006.
"They are who we thought they are," said Pierce, who after a 2 for 9, 7-point performance last night is 5 for 20 in the series. "They are a tough defensive team. They grind it out defensively. They try to fast break, and they're not going to give in. They have a good coach over there who instills his mentality into his players. So, nothing surprising, they are what we expected them to be."
What they are is a team that isn't going to beat the Celtics in a seven-game series, unless Boston decides to make some charitable donations as they did in Game 2. That's not to discredit the 76ers, but this was a game played on their terms -- muddy, ugly, and without a lot of redeeming qualities until the denouement of the fourth quarter.
The danger is not that the 76ers are being underestimated by the Celtics. It's that we're overestimating them now heading into Wednesday's Game 3 in Philadelphia. The 76ers are balanced and very well-coached, but not better than the Celtics, even if Pierce is performing at 70 percent because of a sprained MCL in his left knee.
Two months ago if you had told Celtics fan that the path to the Eastern Conference final wouldn't include a matchup with either Chicago or Miami then they would have been doing cartwheels down Causeway Street. Much of the season was spent fussing over the Celtics escaping having to face Miami or Chicago in the first round.
The idea of dismantling the Big Three at the trade deadline was based in part on the predication that even if the Celtics won the Atlantic Division and ended up in the top four seeds it would be awfully difficult for the Celtics to beat both the Bulls and the Heat to reach a third NBA Final in five seasons.
They don't have to.
All that stands between Boston and the Eastern Conference final is eighth-seeded Philadelphia, a team that went 10-14 in its final 24 games. Yes, they upset a hollowed-out Chicago club in the first round, but the battered Bulls would have forced a decisive Game 7 on their own court if not for a situational basketball brain cramp by C.J. Watson.
If the Celtics blow this series to the upstart Sixers then -- sorry, Paul -- they're not the team we thought they were, plain and simple, injuries or not. (Ray Allen, bad ankle and all, still gave you 17 points in Game 2).
I know Philly won two of three from the Celtics in the regular season, but was anyone really predicting that the New Big Three era would end at the hands of the...76ers?
That doesn't mean this is going to be an easy series. Philadelphia is a gritty, grinding team. During the regular season, it set an NBA record for fewest turnovers per game (11.2). The Sixers were third in both opponent points per game (89.4) and field goal percentage (42.7).
The Sixers are so quick and athletic that at times is appears they derive their abbreviated nickname from how many guys they have on the court.
But the 76ers can only win the series if these games devolve into Philly Frenetic scrums. The Celtics don't need to oblige them by losing their basketball bearings, as they did Monday night.
The Green did what the Sixers couldn't in Game 1 -- stop Kevin Garnett.
Inexplicably, KG took just five shots through the first three quarters, or a third the total of Brandon Bass, who was tossing up shots like they were part of a 2-for-1 special at his local supermarket. Bass was 5 of 15 for the game, despite not playing the final 16:58 of the contest.
Boston shot 9 of 37 in the second and third quarters and trailed, 57-49, at the end of the third.
The Celtics finally went to Garnett in the fourth quarter, and he delivered, going 5 of 7 for 11 points -- as many as the entire team had in the third quarter. KG finished with 15 points (on 7 of 12 shooting), 12 rebounds, one costly illegal screen call and no real explanation for why he didn't get the ball more.
"I don't call the plays," said KG, adding he plays whatever role the team asks.
One of the men who determined the plays, Rivers, said his charges took the offensive blueprint for the game and threw it in the trash.
"We didn't go to him. It's plain and simple," said Rivers. "My thought: We never established the post. ...I really thought we started out the first four minutes of the game moving the ball, playing the right way, and then I thought, honestly, we chased shots as a group."
The Sixers aren't afraid of the Celtics. "We like playing against Boston. We feel like we match up well with them," said Jrue Holiday, who had a game-high 18 points.
The feeling should be mutual.
The 76ers remain who we thought they were, a team the Celtics should beat in a playoff series.
If the Celtics won ugly in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks, then Rajon Rondo's triple-double was also more attractive on the stat sheet than on the parquet.
In his return to the series after an unbecoming ejection in Game 1 and resulting one-game suspension, Rondo had 17 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists on Friday night. But he also shot 7 of 22 from the floor, missed makeable layups down the stretch, air-balled a floater late in the fourth quarter, and had six turnovers.
An acquaintance I watched Game 3 with dubbed it the least impressive triple-double he had ever seen. That's hoops hyperbole, and you know a guy is a great player when you're nitpicking his triple-doubles. But the point is that Rondo's 20th career triple-double was a labor of love and not a work of art.
Sunday night against the Hawks was another story, however. In a contest that wasn't much of one -- the Celtics led by as many as 37 points -- Rondo submitted a performance that in sheer numbers didn't equal what he accomplished on Friday night. But for basketball aesthetics it was superior, like comparing the Sistine Chapel to a paint-by-numbers piece.
Rondo sparked the Celtics to a 101-79 victory over Atlanta and a 3-1 series lead by playing what is known in Brazilian soccer as jogo bonito, or the beautiful game.
The Celtics' restive point guard turned the TD Garden floor into his personal canvas, painting a masterpiece with each pass or stroke of his jump shot. Yes, I said jumper. Rondo had 20 points, 16 assists, three rebounds and remarkably just one turnover. It was more impressive than the triple-double.
"Yeah, because it was needed more," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who could have set up a triage on his bench with all the injuries the Celtics were dealing with -- Mickael's Pietrus's hamstring, Avery Bradley's shoulder, Ray Allen's ankle, and the latest malady, Paul Pierce's left knee.
Basketball isn't all about cold, hard stats. It can be as much performance art as it is athletic endeavor. But if you crave statistical evidence for why this was a better game for Rondo let's start with his 20 points.
Of Rondo's eight made field goals in the game, six of them came on jump shots, none closer than 18 feet. He had two lay-ups, the second of which was a dazzling display of legerdemain. Late in the third quarter, Rondo drove the lane, faked a wrap-around behind the back pass and then pulled the ball back and dropped it in as the Hawks parted like the Red Sea.
"Every day he does something to impress me on the basketball court," said teammate and Rondo whisperer Keyon Dooling. "I really like when he looks at the rim. Teams are going to be going under on him a lot. If he is hitting that jump shot there is not way you can guard him."
By now we're used to Rondo racking up assists like a North End resident racks up parking tickets, but he set the tone for the game with his distribution of the ball. He had 13 assists and no turnovers in the first half. His lone turnover came at 10:43 of the fourth quarter, when he went for a jump pass and faked out his teammates.
It wasn't a bad pass nor a bad decision. A 16-to-1 turnover ratio in an NBA playoff game is nothing short of brilliant. Rondo once had a 19-0 ratio in a playoff game, the Celtics' triple-overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls in Game 6 of a 2009 first-round series, but he shot 4 of 17 in that game.
The most obvious difference between Games 3 and 4 for Rondo was rebounding. However, there weren't many rebounds to be had, in large part due to Rondo's orchestration of the Boston offense. The Celtics shot 66 percent in the first quarter, 63.6 percent at the half and were shooting 60 percent at the end of three quarters.
Coming into the game, Boston had shot just 40.6 percent from the floor in the series.
I'll take this Rondo over the Game 3 triple-double Rondo any day of the week. If Rondo plays like he did Sunday night then the Celtics can beat the Miami Heat or anyone else in their postseason path.
Perhaps the problem with Rondo is that we try to qualify and quantify him, when you really can't do either. You can't compare him to his All-Star contemporaries at point guard like Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Derrick Rose because his style of play doesn't fit neatly in between the lines.
Rondo is one of the most unique players in the game. Unique is an over-used word. But he is truly one of a kind.
There is no one else in the league who plays like the Celtics' sui generis floor general. There are two All-Star players in the NBA who have a game unmatched by anyone else lacing them up in the league -- Rondo and LeBron James.
James is unique because of his ability to handle the ball and pass like a little man despite being the size of an NFL tight end. Rondo is unique because of his preternatural passing ability and ability to rebound the basketball like a man eight inches taller.
"He is incredible. We get to see him every day. It's still impressive even though you see it every day," said Dooling. "The way he sees the game is totally different. He really is a detail-oriented person. Guys just love to play with him. When he's out our guys don't get their normal shots. He can make every pass from every angle. He is a pretty special passer."
The Celtics won pretty and are now sitting pretty in their playoff series with the Hawks and in the Eastern Conference in general.
No more winning ugly, as both Rondo and the Celtics played beautifully.
Four is an integer of interest these days on the Boston sports scene.
The Bruins are tied, 2-2, after four games of their playoff series with the Washington Capitals, thanks to a 44-save performance Thursday night by Washington goalie Braden Holtby, playing in just his fourth NHL playoff game. Four is the number of wins the Red Sox have in their first 12 games under manager Bobby Valentine headed into Friday's Fenway Park centennial celebration. The Celtics are set up as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Patriots have four picks in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, which will take place next week.
So, here are four sports musings for Friday:
1. The Bruins are being beaten at their own game -- No one from Washington has blocked this many attempts at passage since last year's polarizing debt-ceiling budget debate. The Bruins, who tied for second in the NHL in goals during the regular season, have scored just seven in four games in a series that is tighter than a pair of skinny jeans. The Capitals have found hockey religion in the form of defensive-minded play, and a stingy netminder in Holtby.
Before the series, the feeling was a low-scoring, tight-checking, goal-starved series would benefit the Bruins with Tim Thomas in net and coach Claude Julien's dedication to defensively responsible hockey. But that grinding style of play, coupled with the Bruins usual playoff power-play ineptitude (0-12), has allowed a team with lesser overall talent and depth than the Bruins to turn a first-round formality into a hard-fought series.
The only way for the Bruins to shake off the Capitals is to get some of their big guns to stop shooting blanks. None of the Bruins' top five goal-scorers during the regular season -- Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron -- has found the back of the net yet. The quiet quintet has one measly point in the playoffs, an assist belonging to Bergeron. That's an express ticket to an unwanted and unexpected tee time.
2. Ray Allen's ankle situation is concerning -- Allen didn't make the trip to Atlanta, and Friday night will miss his seventh straight game and 13th out of the last 18 due to a balky right ankle. The Celtics' resurgence has been a feel-good story, and with Dwight Howard hors de hoops for the season thanks to a back injury, Boston's path to another NBA Finals got even clearer.
But Allen's condition is worrisome. Either the ankle is not coming around and has reached a stage where it's a chronic ailment that could affect him in the playoffs, or Allen, a free agent after this season, is making a business decision to protect himself and his marketability this summer by not playing hurt. Neither Allen injury scenario bodes well for Banner No. 18.
The former is the dreaded and anticipated breakdown of one of the Celtics' vaunted Big Three. The latter is Allen being miffed about nearly being traded by the Celtics to Memphis at the trade deadline and confirming the rumblings that he's not in love with his new role as a sixth man. In the last two days both the Globe and Herald have had stories implying that Allen feels slighted by the organization and hinting that he could be playing elsewhere once he hits free-agency.
3. The Red Sox' unsettled bullpen is contributing to the hysteria surrounding the team -- The most disconcerting thing about the Red Sox -- besides the fact they would play "Sweet Caroline" in the eighth inning even if Fenway were engulfed in flames -- is the bullpen, a unit that is a conflagration in the making.
Here are the relievers with corresponding ERAs that the Yankees used on Thursday night in a 7-6 win over the Minnesota Twins after starter Phil Hughes was tagged for six runs in 5 1/3 innings: Boone Logan (1.23), Rafael Soriano (1.80), David Robertson (0.00) and Mariano Rivera (4.15). There is a better chance of Terry Francona returning as Red Sox manager this season than Rivera finishing the season with an ERA above 4.00.
The Sox' farraginous bullpen simply can't compete with the arms the Yankees have. It's a complete mismatch and the lack of proven, reliable options undermines Valentine far more than any careless words he utters to the media.
It may be unfair to Daniel Bard, but to give Valentine and this team a reasonable chance to succeed the Sox will have to consider moving him back to the bullpen at some point.
4. Likes and dislikes of the 2012 NFL schedule -- What any Patriots fan has to like about the schedule is the paucity of high-end quarterbacks on the team's slate. Three of the Patriots' four losses last season came at the hands of Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Their porous pass defense struggled against elite QBs. The two best quarterbacks on the schedule this year are Peyton Manning (Denver) and Joe Flacco (Baltimore). Houston's Matt Schaub would also be on the list, but he's recovering from a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot, an injury that can have long-term effects.
What I don't like about the schedule is the placement of the two Jets games. Everyone is talking about how easy the Patriots schedule appears, but the difficulty of their slate will be determined in large part by whether the Jets resemble the dysfunctional, bickering bunch from last season that missed the playoffs or the team that advanced to two straight AFC title games.
The first Jets game comes on Oct. 21 at Gillette Stadium. The week before the Jets have a nice cushy 1 p.m. home game against the rebuilding Colts. The Patriots meanwhile have to fly to Seattle and play the Seahawks in a 4:15 game, ensuring jet lag and a wee-hours of the morning arrival home, which could mean losing a half-day or more of preparation time. The second clash with the Jets comes on Thanksgiving and is on the road, which means already limited time to prepare, truncated even more by a travel day. Granted, both teams are playing the prior Sunday at 1 p.m., and the Jets are on the road (Rams) while the Patriots are home (Colts). But such a pivotal divisional game shouldn't have its game-planning compromised.
My biggest issue with the NFL schedule overall is the expansion of the Thursday night television package. It seems hypocritical for commissioner Roger Goodell to go on a player safety crusade and then have the league increase the number of games that are played on Thursday nights without building in byes.
How is this for player safety? The Ravens will host the Patriots on Sunday night football on Sept. 23, and then turn around and host the Cleveland Browns the following Thursday. Inexplicably, not a single one of the 14 Thursday night games this season features a team coming off a bye week. That could do more damage than Gregg Williams and his bounties.
T.S. Eliot said April was the cruelest month, but there is a lot to look forward to in the fourth month of the year in the foremost sports city in the country.
We have the recharged Bruins ready to defend their Stanley Cup crown in the NHL playoffs, the reconfigured Red Sox, replete with a new general manger, manager and closer, hoping to erase the grease stains of last season's epic collapse, the revitalized Celtics appearing ready to make one last championship run, and everybody's favorite rite of April, the Patriots trading out of the first round of the NFL Draft. Seriously, it's a fascinating draft for the Patriots, who have two picks in both the first and second rounds and are an impact defender or two away from Lombardi trophy No. 4.
With the foreword out of the way, here are four thoughts on each of the Big Four sports teams in town.
1. The Celtics are making Danny Ainge look smart -- It looked like Ainge had erred when he failed to pull the trigger on a trade at the deadline that would jumpstart the inevitable rebuilding process. But now Danny the Dealer looks shrewd for standing pat. The Celtics have won five straight and nine of their last 12 to jump from seventh in the East to fourth with a real chance to catch Orlando for the third spot.
The best part of the Celtics' recent renaissance has been the emergence of guard Avery Bradley, who has been a revelation while Ray Allen has sat out with an ankle injury. In his last five games, Bradley is averaging 14.6 points per game while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and playing defense better than a White House press secretary. He has given the Celtics a much-needed boost of athleticism in the starting lineup and a running mate for Rondo.
Even if the Celtics don't get beyond the second-round of the playoffs this stretch has been of enormous benefit, as it has turned Bradley from an NBA unknown into an asset. This is what Ainge does best -- turn late round picks into assets he can either hold on to (Rondo) or dangle out to attract better players (Al Jefferson).
Since taking over in 2003 here are the late-round players that Ainge has obtained through the draft either by selection or draft-day deal: 2003 -- Kendrick Perkins (trade with Memphis); 2004 -- Jefferson, Delonte West, and Tony Allen; 2005 -- Gerald Green and Ryan Gomes (second-round pick), both part of the Kevin Garnett deal; 2006 -- some guy named Rondo in a trade with Phoenix; 2007-- Jeff Green, the centerpiece of a deal for Ray Allen; 2010 -- Bradley (19th pick).
Not dismantling his team has been a strategic success for Ainge. It has made the pieces on his roster look more enticing to other teams, and it has made his team look more enticing to potential free agents, who may look at the Celtics now and realize that they could be a quick-fix, not a tear-down.
2. The Red Sox' standard operating procedure hasn't changed -- So, I created quite a stir with my piece on the dynamics between new general manager Ben Cherington and new manager Bobby Valentine. I think some may have missed my point, which wasn't that Cherington and Valentine were stabbing each other in the back with every sharp object they could find, only spoke to each other to spew invectives and were locked in a "The Hunger Games"-style battle for control of the team. (By the way, why is it "news" that a manager and general manager text and talk to each other frequently?)
The point was that the decisions on how to employ Daniel Bard and Jose Iglesias were going to tell us something about the Sox' organizational structure and whether it had changed with Theo Epstein's departure. It would appear not. It's still a collective process spearheaded by the GM.
Perhaps, making Bard a starter was a move that Valentine unwaveringly supported all along, but that seems even more dubious when taking into account the thumb injury to closer Andrew Bailey. This nugget from colleague Peter Abraham in which Alfredo Aceves, who really should think about starting his own Red Sox blog since he seems to break every story, said that Valentine told him Bard got his spot because the organization wanted him to is particularly telling.
Testing out Bard as a starter this season has always been particularly important to Cherington. It was something he was committed to. That's fact, not opinion. A first-year manager on a two-year contract at risk of losing the closer from an already suspect bullpen to injury wouldn't be leading the charge to turn one of the game's best late-inning relievers into a starter, not when he has other viable options for the rotation. He has to win now. Nothing undermines a team faster or produces more second-guessing of a manager than uncertainty in the late innings.
Valentine knows how much Bard can help him the back end of the bullpen. No one knows yet how much he can help him in the back end of the rotation. Yes, Valentine is on board with the idea of Bard being a starter, but that train had already left the station. He hopped aboard, but he'll claim he was the conductor.
3. The Bruins' hibernation is over -- Perhaps, the Spoked-B on the Boston sweaters stood for boredom and that was the explanation for the two-half month malaise --16-17-2 -- that culminated in an ugly four-game losing streak. Whatever it was, the Bruins are back and at the perfect time. They've taken points in five of their last six games and are 7-1-1 in their last nine.
It's not a coincidence that the Bruins renaissance dovetailed with that of their goalie, Tim Thomas. The Bruins stingy netminder hasn't allowed more than two goals in his last seven starts and has a .941 save percentage during that time. Which happened first, better defensive play in their own end or stouter play in their own net? Either way this is the type of hockey the Bruins are going to need to defend their Stanley Cup crown against a much tougher field than last year.
What is a little bit concerning about the Black and Gold this season though is that despite their propensity for scoring goals -- 251, trailing only tonight's opponent, Pittsburgh, and the Philadelphia Flyers -- they're front-runners.
The Bruins are 3-15-1 this season when going down 2-0 and 4-20-1 when trailing by two goals at any point in a game. The Bruins are unquestionably built to play with a lead, but two of their signature wins last spring came when they trailed by two goals, Game 4 of the first-round against Montreal and Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the Flyers.
You would think a team with six 20-goal scorers would be a little bit better at digging out of holes. They might have to be because they're not going to have the same distinct goaltending advantage they enjoyed last season.
4. This draft should be about quality not quantity for the Patriots -- Over the last three drafts the Patriots have selected 33 players. The draft is seven rounds, so a team with one pick per round would have taken 21 players. This year the Patriots have only six picks, but all are in the top 126. The Patriots have done an excellent job of building depth, but what the Super Bowl proved was that high-end talent on defense takes the day.
It's time to find the Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez of the defense. Along those lines they might have to take some chances. Some teams didn't even have Gronkowski (back injury) and Hernandez (off-field behavior) on their draft boards.
A player like cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was booted out of Florida, spent last season at Division II North Alabama and has four kids with three different mothers, is a risk, but he could also be a Revis-like factor. Jenkins was the best corner in the Southeastern Conference in 2010.
He held A.J. Green, now of the Bengals, to four catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. Julio Jones, the player the Falcons gave up a bounty to move up and draft last year, got four catches for 19 yards against Jenkins. Alshon Jeffrey, considered one of the top half-dozen receivers in this draft, had two catches for 17 yards against Jenkins.
It's a familiar refrain, but the Patriots need pass rush too, and as old friend, Mike Reiss, has often pointed out they spent 60-plus percent of last season in the sub defense. No one would call Mark Anderson, part of that package, a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker, but he was a significant part of that package and the Patriots' defense.
The Patriots tend to go for tall, long-limbed types on the outside (Shawn Crable, Jermaine Cunningham) that can set the edge against the run, but to get an impact pass rusher they have to consider stepping outside of their prototypes and comfort zone.
Part of me believes raising Rajon Rondo's name in trade talks was a Machiavellian motivational ploy by Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers to bring out the best in the tenacious young point guard and a fiercely loyal team by raising the specter of being split up.
It has clearly worked, as the Celtics enter tonight's game in Philadelphia as winners of five straight post-All-Star break, and with a win over the 76ers can reclaim their rightful perch atop the Atlantic Division.
If the Celtics win tonight it will be their first six-game win streak since they ripped off 14 straight during November and December of 2010. Yet Tuesday night's agita-inducing, overtime win over the Houston Rockets only highlighted the biggest long-term and short-term question revolving around the Celtics ahead of the March 15 trade deadline -- where does Rajon Rondo fit into the blueprint for Banner No. 18?
The Rondo debate has become like American politics -- polarizing and with little room for middle ground. Either Rondo is the greatest thing to happen to basketball since Dr. James Naismith pinned up a peachbasket or he's a slimmed-down version of Sherm Douglas with hops and a headband. Both sides are proselytizing their point of view on the point guard.
Rondo did little to clarify the debate Tuesday night, following up his historic triple-double on Sunday with a vexing performance (9 points, 12 assists, 3 rebounds). After he had 9 points in the first half and thoroughly outplayed Houston Rockets counterpart Kyle Lowry, Rondo went scoreless in the second, including botching a potential game-sealing layup that forced the Celtics to go to overtime.
He finished 4 of 12 from the field and 1 of 4 from the free throw line, and was a non-factor late in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Traditional basketball statistics and the new numbers used to quantify the game seem to be similarly at odds on how to value the Celtics' one-of-kind point guard.
Two sets of basketball numbers tell you Rondo is two different players. Traditional stats tell you that Rondo is a miniaturized distant relative of Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. New age analysis tells you Rondo is closer in class to Lowry or Denver's Ty Lawson.
Perhaps, you're not aware but basketball has gotten the same mathematical makeover that baseball enjoyed. It's just less accepted by the hoops hoi polloi. There's a reason that 27 of the 30 NBA teams had someone at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference here in Boston last week, which included a panel featuring Celtics assistant general manager/number cruncher-in-chief Mike Zarren.
The Celtics are at the forefront of the advanced metrics movement in the NBA. They used to employ Rockets GM Daryl Morey, a noted advanced metric devotee.
When numbers talk the Celtics listen, and advanced metrics are saying something about Rondo that is very different from what traditional stats say about his impact, performance and importance. That would explain in part why they would be open to exploring moving such a dynamic player.
Rondo is averaging a career-high 14.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game this season, and he is second in the league in assists per game at 10.2. But his most impressive traditional stat is this: of the 10 triple-doubles in the NBA this year he has four.
Rondo's 18-point, 17-rebound, 20-assist effort against the New York Knicks on Sunday was immediately followed by a chorus of contempt for the mere notion that the Celtics would entertain swapping him for anything less than LeBron James. Trading Rondo for Stephen Curry was hoops heresy.
Current trusted advanced metrics in the game portray a different point guard. ESPN's John Hollinger is one of the pioneers of basketball metrics. His player efficiency rating (PER) is a respected way to compare players when accounting for minutes played per game and style of play.
Here are Hollinger's current top five players in PER -- LeBron James (33.13), Dwyane Wade (28.34), Kevin Durant (27.24), Chris Paul (25.99), Derrick Rose (25.09). Dwight Howard is seventh and Kobe Bryant is eight.
Hollinger's top five points guards are Paul, Rose, Russell Westbrook (23.39), Curry (22.25) and Steve Nash (21.99), who just edges out Tony Parker (21.93). Deron Williams, Jeremy Lin and Kyrie Irving are all in the top 10. Guess who is not?
Rondo is No. 17 at 18.28, trailing Lowry (No. 11) and Lawson (No. 12) and tucked between Rodney Stuckey and Mike Conley. That's a stark contrast to the Green gospel that Rondo is unequivocally a top five point guard.
Statistics are the sports version of one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books. You can get them to tell any story you want. No way is Rondo the 17th best point guard in basketball. At worst he's sixth or seventh. But based on advanced metrics, a Rondo-for-Curry deal has merit.
I recall the last sharpshooter with bad ankles the Celtics traded for worked out pretty well (see: Allen, Ray).
Another evolved stat is estimated wins added (EWA). It's the basketball equivalent of baseball's WAR (wins above replacement). The top five point guards are Paul, Westbrook, Williams, Rose and Parker.
Rondo is ranked 17th in this stat (3.6 wins added) as well, and if you think he's being penalized because he's not a big scorer just know that Nash, who is averaging 13.8 points per game, ranks sixth. Lowry is seventh. For comparison, Paul Pierce has a EWA of 5.2. Kevin Garnett's is 4.7.
Statistics, new and old, are no better at providing a definitive view of what Rondo is than subjective opinion.
They're just as confounded and divided by his game as the rest of us. Let the Rajon debate rage on.
The Celtics are not going to make this easy on Danny Ainge. He has to know that.
There is too much pride and enough talent left in the Big Three, plus sufficient pedestrian opposition, to provide the illusion that these Celtics constitute more than an Eastern Conference also-ran.
The truth is that like Ainge, the Celtics are in parquet purgatory, somewhere in that nebulous NBA territory between a championship chase and a rebuilding job. Mediocrity is better than futility, but it's equally as far from Banner No. 18.
The NBA's trading deadline is two weeks and eight games from today. That's how long Ainge has to conjure up a deal and cold-heartedly cut the cord, like he's always said he would. Like he should.
It's also how long his four All-Stars have to sway him that not playing out the string would be a Shaquille O'Neal-sized mistake. If Boston's Core Four of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo are going to be broken up, then Ainge is going to have to pry them apart with a crowbar, kicking and screaming. They've made that clear the last two nights.Ainge probably has the same conflicting voices in his brain that Red Auerbach did when he contemplated and ultimately declined to break up the Original Big Three. Not as easy as you thought, huh Danny?
Ainge has his finger perched above the red launch button and is ready to blow up a team that sits at 17-17, in seventh place in the East, with 32 games to go. ESPN has reported that the Celtics are actively shopping Rondo, who at this point should come with his own Groupon.
If the question is whether Ainge should dismantle a championship contender, the answer is he already did that last year, when he traded Kendrick Perkins, even if Perkins is not genetically spliced with the DNA of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar like some want to believe.
So, the real question facing Danny the Dealer revolves around the future and how big a part of it is Rondo? Is the impetuous point guard a rebuilding block or a trade chip? Ainge seems to be leaning towards the latter.
Rondo is the item Ainge puts in Boston's storefront window to draw in potential customers. He's under contract for three more years at an average of $12 million per year, and is a 26-year-old three-time All-Star.
Allen has appeal, but he's a rent-a-shooter for most teams. Pierce is expensive and isn't playing well right now, shooting 39.5 percent in February and just 29.5 percent from the 3-point line. No one is going to take KG's 21.2 million salary on board, even if it looks like he spent the All-Star break at the Fountain of Youth.
The Rondo rumors have a dual purpose for the Celtics. If the right deal to reboot the team comes along, Ainge can pull the trigger. If it doesn't, being tossed around as a trade chip seems to be the only action that gets Rondo to play nice with his teammates and coach Doc Rivers these days.
Rondo has to be one of the most confounding athletes in the history of Boston sports. No one can look more uniquely talented or limited, sometimes in the same game. It's quintessential Rondo to follow up a scoreless game with five turnovers and 11 assists with a triple-double. Since his back-to-back 30-point games against the Bulls and Pistons in which he went to the stripe a combined 22 times, Rondo has gone to the line 10 times total in six games.
He is one of the smartest people to ever have a recorder or a microphone shoved in his face in this town, almost Belichickian in how he can toy with questioners. But like a lot of very intelligent people his intellect causes him to constantly clash with authority, whether its Rivers, referee Sean Wright, or the imaginary conspirators who originally kept him off the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
If you need three stars to build a contender, where does Rondo fall on the star meter? He has to be at least a No. 2 in Ainge's estimation to make him a central part of the rebuilding because the likelihood of drawing two All-Star caliber players better than Rondo to Boston is not that great, and Pierce is at a point in his career where he would fit nicely into the No. 3 star role.
Dealing Rondo for Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who has a plethora of ankle problems, is not the same as sending him away to get Paul or Deron Williams. But Curry can shoot and score and has the ability to mature -- always an operative word with Rondo -- into a second star.
One thing we should all be able to agree on at this point is that while Rondo is sublime, he is a notch below the Paul, Williams, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook group. He could change that, and in keeping Rondo that's the bet Ainge would be making.
The most compelling reason to keep the core together at least through the end of the season is the play of Garnett. In his last three games, KG is averaging 22 points and 10.3 rebounds per game while shooting 55 percent from the floor.
If Garnett is going to play that way it takes scoring pressure off Rondo. With this KG, the Celtics would have a good shot of moving up to the No. 3 or No. 4 seed and catching Philadelphia, which has a three-game lead over Boston, for the Atlantic Division crown.
Plus, Pierce can't possibly shoot as poorly as he did in February, and with the return of power forward Brandon Bass the Celtics are as healthy as they've been all season.
If you want to find reasons to believe it's easy, but Ainge should know better.
The Celtics have a list of issues so long right now they could fill Jack Kerouac's scroll. Rajon Rondo shouldn't be one of them. He should be a problem-solver, but instead he's still behaving like a problem child.
The restive point guard earned himself a head start to the NBA's All-Star break after he lost his cool in the third quarter of the Celtics' 96-81 loss to the Detroit Pistons on Sunday night. After failing to get a foul call, Rondo fired the ball at referee Sean Wright, forcing the NBA to send Ragin' Rajon into the corner for a two-game timeout.
Rondo turns 26 on Wednesday, and instead of celebrating his birthday by playing against best friend Kendrick Perkins and the Oklahoma City Thunder, he's going to spend it watching a shorthanded Celtics team that has lost four straight (and six of seven) try to survive without him. In a shortened 66-game season that is already slipping away, the Celtics can't afford to sacrifice games, or they'll end up first-round sacrificial lambs for Miami or Chicago.
We're past the point where you can simply ascribe Rondo's petulance to youthful indiscretion. He's in his sixth season in the league. He has played in two NBA Finals. He has been an All-Star. As he likes to point out, he's the only one of his generational point guard peers with a ring. If you want to be considered The Man, you can't behave like a temperamental teen.
For all the questions the Celtics have to answer in the second half of the season, the most pressing one facing Danny Ainge is whether Rondo should be regarded as a future building block or stumbling block?
The 10 games the Celtics have between the start of the second half and the March 15 trade deadline could go a long way to making that determination.
The assumption has been that when the Big Three era faded to black, the team would be turned over to Rondo and the Celtics would rebuild around their All-Star point guard. However, Rondo might be too unpredictable in his mood swings and too predictable in his play to be the Celtics' centerpiece.
The same competitive fire that makes Rondo such a joy to watch can turn into a raging inferno that consumes him and leaves his teammates feeling burned and coaches fuming.
You wish Rondo would channel that competitive conflagration into free-throw shooting, a better jump shot or on-the-ball defense instead of self-immolating displays of defiance.
We've reached a point where it's unclear whether the aging Big Three are still helping him steer clear of his on-court shortcomings or putting the emergency brake on his game.
Rondo is as uniquely confounding a player to evaluate as he is to play against. His talents and weaknesses are equally glaring.
There are nights like his triple-double against the Chicago Bulls (32 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds) where Rondo is a transcendent force. There are other nights where his limitations are as visible as the Citgo sign, and you wonder why every team doesn't just turn his man into a free safety.
Here are the current numbers of two soon-to-be 26-year-old point guards, Rondo and Point Guard X. Rondo is averaging 14.8 points (a career-high), 9.5 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game; he is shooting 48.5 percent from the field, 25 percent from 3-point range and 61.5 percent from the free throw line.
Point Guard X is averaging 15.7 points per game, 7.7 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 2 steals; he is shooting 41.6 percent from the field, .38.3 percent from 3-point range with the same number of 3-pointers this season (57) that Rondo has in his career and 87.6 percent from the free throw line.
Point Guard X is Kyle Lowry of the Houston Rockets. You will never hear Kyle Lowry's name mentioned in any discussion of the top five point guards in the league, rightfully so. But around here we always hear Rondo discussed with such reverence.
To suggest Rondo is closer to Lowry than he is to Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker is hoops heresy punishable by death by Tommy Point. But what if it's true? No one builds a team around Kyle Lowry.
If it were just Rondo's on-court limitations then you could point out that he still has room to grow as a player, but Rondo can't be counted as a franchise cornerstone until he turns the corner on his contumacy.
During the trade talks of the offseason, teams were turned off by and concerned about Rondo's temperament. That appeared to have been a wake-up call.
On the first day of training camp, while addressing his name being bandied about in the Paul trade talks, Rondo was the anti-Beckett. He said all the right things. He struck a more mature, self-aware, self-effacing, measured tone.
It seemed like the days of tossing bottles at video screens and sulking if he wasn't playing well were over. But it appears Rondo has relapsed.
Other franchise players have stumbled in the past, included Pierce, who got ejected from the closing seconds of a playoff game against Indiana in 2005 and then in a juvenile display showed up to the press conference wearing a bandage around his head.
Pierce grew out of his peevishness and into his role as a leader. Perhaps Rondo will too.
Rondo just has to hope that Ainge and coach Doc Rivers remain patient paternal figures, and don't determine like they did with Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Delonte West that Rondo should be somebody else's problem child.
WALTHAM - Banner year or bust.
That’s what it comes down for the Big Three, Rajon Rondo (hope he is renting), Doc Rivers, Danny Ainge, and the back-in-business Boston Celtics.
With the NBA lockout settled, the Celtics convened for the first practice of training camp yesterday at HealthPoint. Their mission and the story line are clear - one last run for one more ring. With yesterday’s trade of Glen “Big Baby’’ Davis, the Big Three and Rondo are all that remains from the club that was bathed in confetti at TD Garden celebrating Banner No. 17 in June 2008.
This is season five of the Big Three. When Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were assembled in 2007, few thought they’d be as successful as they immediately were and even fewer thought they would still be together five seasons later. It feels like we’ve been predicting the final act of the Big Three for a couple of years now, but the curtain is coming down on an era of Boston basketball one way or another this time.
Allen, 36, and Garnett, 35, are in the last years of their contract and as Ainge has shown by shopping Rondo, he’s not the sentimental type.
It’s been a glorious run for the trio of Garnett, Allen, and Pierce, who have restored the luster to the game’s most storied franchise, but Pierce’s age now matches his number (34), and he’s the young pup of the trio of future Hall of Famers.
There is a sense of urgency surrounding the Celtics and an air of honesty.
“This is most likely our last shot, and I was honest with them about that,’’ said Rivers, who signed a five-year, $35 million deal in the offseason to remain coach. "I said this has to be a team that looks at ourselves as we have to do it this year because this is our only year that we can do it. You may never be in this position again as a player or as a coach, and we have to try to take advantage of it.
“With Danny, you know he is going to be aggressive enough he’s going to try to get us every single part. One of the things I told Danny is I don’t care if it doesn’t fit, get talent. I’ll take talent, and we’ll figure it out. I was serious about that. You need skill in this league to win.’’
That’s ultimately the question about the Celtics. Do their aging stars have enough left in the tank to overtake the nouveau riche of the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat, who bounced the Celtics in five games last year?
If you’re wondering why Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations, had Rondo’s name swishing about in trade talks like merlot at a wine tasting, it’s because he can see the end coming. Trading for Chris Paul was as much about the present as the future. It was about giving this team the best chance to win this season and prying open a closing championship window.
Role players such as Marquis Daniels, Brandon Bass, Keyon Dooling, Chris Wilcox don’t exactly have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh quaking in their Nikes in South Beach. Barring an unexpected act of personnel prestidigitation by Danny the Dealer, or a Jacoby Ellsbury-esque offensive epiphany by Rondo, the Celtics are going to be roughly the same team as last season, a team that wasn’t good enough to get out of the second round.
Allen, who doesn’t look a day over 28, knows this season is on the shoulders of the Big Three and their capricious young point guard, whom Celtics fans will be happy to know struck a mature tone yesterday about having his name floated in trade talks.
“I like our team. I feel very strongly about our chances,’’ said Allen. “One of the things that we said is that we have the guys that are going to help us win, but me, Paul, Kevin, and Rondo we have to make sure that we play our best basketball . . .That responsibility always falls square on our shoulders, and we have to be better than we were last year.’’
Some are suggesting that the lockout-reduced 66-game might be able to extend the shelf life of the Celtics’ championship aspirations. The common wisdom is fewer games should result in fresher legs come playoff time and thus the shortened slate is to their advantage.
However, the truncated season will have just as many back-to-backs - occasions on which the Celtics must play on consecutive days - as the traditional 82-game schedule had last year (19). Plus, this schedule has the dreaded back-to-back-to-back.
Last year, typical of an aging team, the Celtics struggled in the second game of back-to-backs. They went 15-4 in the first game and 8-11 in the second game, posting a 3-11 mark when the second game was on the road.
This is relevant because the landscape of the East has changed. The idea of the Celtics cruising into the playoffs as the fourth seed and flipping the switch in the playoffs to reach the NBA Finals as they did in 2009-10 is as faulty as Tyler Seguin’s alarm clock. The Heat, Bulls, and Knicks are all significant road blocks to the Finals.
Boston stumbled down the stretch last season, as Shaquille O’Neal ossified, Rondo pouted, and Kendrick Perkins’s trade was mourned, going 10-11, to finish at 56-26 and drop from the top seed in the East to the third seed. It cost them.
Reversing the signs of aging are rare in the NBA. Recent history says that once the basketball baton is passed to a new team the old guard becomes the rear guard. That was the case for Boston’s Original Big Three.
But this group of hoopsters has made a habit of proving people wrong.
The hope is that their final run together includes one last Finals run.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.
Understand this about Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge: he is like a Wall Street trader, always prowling for a deal that will make him richer. In this instance the coveted commodity isn't money but basketball talent.
So while Ainge explained away the Rajon Rondo trade rumors in part by saying that any player worth his salt will be mentioned in deals at some point during his career, take with a grain of sodium what Danny the Dealer said about not trading his point guard, whose name has been floated in a rumored deal for New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul.
Ainge's words are not ironclad confirmation that your No. 9 replica Celtics jersey won't become a throwback or throwaway.
Ainge's answer when asked whether he anticipated -- that's the key word -- trading Rondo, his two-time All-Star point guard was, "I don't anticipate that, no."
There is (Antoine Walker) wiggle room in those words. I don't anticipate winning the lottery tomorrow, but if I have a winning ticket I'm not turning it down. The same goes for Ainge dealing Rondo.
Of course he doesn't anticipate trading Rondo because right now the Celtics don't have the pieces to appease the Hornets in a Rondo-for-Paul swap, and Paul is trying to derail any deal that doesn't have him landing at Madison Square Garden alongside Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire.
CP3 is oblivious to the fact that New York gutted its roster to acquire Anthony and basically can only send a combination of Spike Lee DVDs and old Isiah Thomas Christmas cards to James Dolan to New Orleans for him.
If at some point Ainge can make a deal that flips Rondo and other pieces into Chris Paul then just like his playing days he won't hesitate to take a shot, no matter how much unconditional love he professed for Rondo's game Thursday at the Celtics practice facility.
The 25-year-old Rondo is the one blue chip trading chip that Ainge has if he's going to prop open the Celtics' championship window as Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen enter the last year of their contracts and the twilights of their careers. But as good a player as the sui generis Rondo is it's not clear that he is the type of point guard that can be the foundation of a championship team.
Plus, Ainge has lusted after Paul since the four-time All-Star came into the league in 2005. Before the 2005 draft Ainge tried to swing a deal where he would send Paul Pierce to Portland for the No. 3 pick, which he would have used to take Paul.
If he was willing to deal his best player and a future Hall of Famer for an unproven Paul. He will be willing to send Rondo for an in-his-prime Paul. And he should.
Rondo is a joy to watch play, but there is no way you could objectively come to the conclusion that Rondo is currently the better player than Paul. If you do then you're logic is being severely skewed by laundry. This isn't Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green.
Rondo is an All-Star point guard. Paul is a franchise player who plays point guard.
Age is a wash. Paul is 26 and turns 27 in May. Rondo is 25 and turns 26 in February.
Paul is a more capable scorer (career average of 18.1 points per game, two seasons of averaging 20-plus per game), a better perimeter shooter and can get to the rim with the same ease as Rondo, but is a better finisher. Plus, Paul has never shot worse than 81.8 percent from the free throw line, Rondo's personal Waterloo.
The idea that Rondo is a better passer than Paul is myth. Rondo may be the more ostentatious and creative passer -- some of the alley-oops he's thrown in the player-organized, lockout all-star games have to be seen to be believed -- but Paul is the one with two NBA assists crowns to his name and three seasons averaging more than 10 assists per game.
Defense and rebounding are Rondo's advantage, right? Yes and no. Paul has actually averaged more rebounds per game over the course of his career and led the league in steals on three occasions, including last year. But the eye-test says Rondo is better in those areas.
What it comes down to is fit.
Rondo's altruistic play on the court was a perfect fit for the Celtics over the last four seasons. They didn't need a point guard who wanted more shots with three Hall of Famers, Pierce, KG and Allen, already fighting over them. But with KG and to a lesser degree Allen showing signs of decline there is now a need for Rondo to become more of a consistent scoring threat if the Celtics are going to catch the Heat and Bulls in the East.
That was obvious in the Celtics' five-game defeat at the hands of the Heat. Rondo was limited by the dislocated elbow he suffered in Game 3, the one game the Celtics won in the series. That also was the only game in which the Celtics' Core Four outscored Miami's trinity of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
The good teams, Lakers, Heat, etc., lay off Rondo and basically use Kobe, Dwayne Wade or LeBron as free safeties and turn the halfcourt into a 5-on-4 exercise. They would not be able to do that with Paul or even Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, who has an itchy trigger finger that not even Kevin Durant can suppress.
None of this is to denigrate Rondo, one of the most unique players the league has seen. It's just the Celtics' needs may have changed, and his game really hasn't.
This works for Ainge either way. If Rondo stays, he's motivated to prove he is a better player than his nemeisis Paul, whom he has had some notable run-ins with, and expand his game. If Rondo gets dealt for Paul, Ainge gets his man.
Just don't believe Ainge wouldn't deal Rondo.
NBA owners feel the players have attained too much of both, and they want to take them back, even if it requires shuttering the league for a year.
The NBA has always been a players' league, but now it is the players' league. Star players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony basically held their teams -- and to a degree the entire NBA -- hostage before dictating where they played and with whom, all while cashing in with new lucrative, long-term deals.
For egotistical, imperious, successful entrepreneurs, a description that fits almost all NBA owners, it's difficult to accept an industry in which the employees dictate the terms.
Call this the revenge of Dan Gilbert. The choleric Cavaliers owner was essentially powerless as his franchise player, James, took his talents to Miami in a self-aggrandizing television special. Gilbert's team was humiliated on national television and instantly devalued. The Cavs went from contenders to a league laughingstock, posting an NBA-record 26-game losing streak with LeBron's Leftovers.
Now, like a jilted lover, Gilbert is part of a group of hardline owners who want to bring the players to their knees and the pendulum of power swinging back in their direction.
NBA owners don't just want a victory in the labor game -- they have that already with the players agreeing to decrease their percentage of basketball-related income from 57 percent to as low as 50 percent -- they want a 40-point rout replete with scrubs (Cleveland, Indiana, Sacramento) throwing down dunks and mugging for the cameras in the final seconds.
No wonder the NBA is headed for a different kind of court, with the players association decertifying after rejecting the owners' final offer.
The owners' take-it-or-leave-it proposal would lower minimum salaries by 12 percent; trim the maximum length of contracts from six years to five; cut the annual salary increases for a player that re-signs with his team from 10.5 percent to 6.5 percent (players like James and Bosh who were sign-and-trade free agents would only be eligible for four-year deals with a 3.5 percent jump per year); prohibit teams from offering a contract extension to a player they acquire via trade for six months (the 'Melo Mandate); bar teams that exceed the luxury tax from making sign-and-trade deals, starting in 2013 and replace the dollar-for-dollar tariff for exceeding the luxury tax with a more onerous tiered system that penalizes teams up to $3.25 per dollar depending on how far they go over the cap.
There is also what we'll call the LeBron Rule, a stipulation that all but ends the early termination option (ETO) in contracts that LeBron, Wade and Bosh all used to become free agents last summer, and that Dwight Howard and Chris Paul could utilize to hit the market this summer.
Now, a player (and a team) could only have an option year if the first-year salary is less than the NBA average player salary, which will never happen for an NBA star, or if the option years are non-guaranteed.
The next proposal from NBA owners will probably ask to bring back the old baseball reserve clause.
In his memo to NBA players imploring them to make a deal, commissioner David Stern asked players to focus on the compromises owners have made. Then he mentioned backing down on a hard salary cap, roll-backs of existing contracts -- you know, the ones owners negotiated -- and the abolition of guaranteed contracts.
How can you concede something you never had? It's logic more twisted than a bread tie.
NBA stars like LeBron, Kobe, D-Wade, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose aren't just employees. They're the product, and that's the irony here. The NBA is trying to slay a monster it created.
The NBA's success has been built on the idea of peddling personalities and building individual brands. It's how the NBA rose to prominence. It wasn't Celtics vs. Lakers. It was Bird vs. Magic, or Magic vs. Michael, or Jordan vs. Barkley. No league has emphasized individual accomplishment and personality like the NBA over the past 25-30 years. The league empowered its star players by putting them above its teams.
It's no wonder that they ended up with some self-serving, entitled, egomaniacal players like LeBron. But what the NBA is trying to do is jam the tooth-paste back in the tube, one messy, desperate dip at a time.
The idea of star players steering what team they play for didn't start with James. Back in 1975 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar let the Milwaukee Bucks know that they could either trade him to a more desirable NBA locale or watch him walkaway to the ABA. Abdul-Jabbar forced his way to the Los Angeles Lakers.
In 1996, 14 years before LeBron's Decision, a young, telegenic, charismatic franchise player for a small-market franchise used free agency to abscond for sunnier climes. Shaquille O'Neal, the Big Mercenary, left Orlando and landed with the Lakers.
As for NBA owners complaining about marginal players being overpaid, no one put a gun to their head and forced them to sign Bobby Simmons to a five-year, $47 million deal.
Most of these NBA owners got their teams by knowing how to expertly manage money. It's not the players' fault that they display the monetary munificence of teenage girls at the mall in pursuit of players or that certain NBA markets lack sufficient fan bases to turn a profit.
In the real business world if a company had a branch in New Orleans or Charlotte that wasn't sustainable they would just close it or relocate it. Why should the NBA be any different?
Don't be fooled. This isn't about the NBA getting more favorable conditions for conducting business or more competitive balance. It's about putting the players back in their place, and it's basketball fans who are powerless in this power play.
Full disclosure, I'm a draft-a-holic.
Sports drafts always draw me in, whether it be NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, Major League Soccer. The first round of the NHL Entry Draft tonight is appointment viewing, as the NBA Draft was must-see TV last night.
There is something about the novelty of new talent that is always exciting. It's fascinating watching teams trying to project or predict the future, knowing their own hangs in the balance.
For the most part the players that are already on a team's roster are finished products. Their flaws and abilities have been documented and dissected. Draft picks are the solve-for-X of the team-building equation. They are unknowns that (theoretically) can be anything you want -- a franchise savior, an underrated role player or a project that pans out. Drafting is part inexact science and part public relations campaign.
Both hope and hype spring eternal at a draft, sports' perpetual exercise in optimism. Every plan makes sense. Every pick is the guy a team coveted. Such was the case last night with the Celtics in an NBA Draft that was weaker than a day old cup of decaf.
The Celtics had the 25th pick and parlayed it into Purdue power forward JaJuan Johnson and a 2014 second-round pick, making a pre-arranged deal with the New Jersey Nets, who actually selected Johnson at No. 27.
"We didn't think he'd be there, and he was," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
"This year we went in with an idea that if a good opportunity came to move out of the draft, depending on who was available in the draft," said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. "But when JaJuan was there we really wanted to stay. He was a guy that we had rated pretty high, and had targeted from the beginning."
Johnson, who led the Big Ten in scoring last season (20.5 points per game) and was the Big Ten Player of the Year and a first-team All-American, is that rarest of species in the hierarchy of wannabee hoopsters -- a four-year college player. He also stands in stark contrast to the first pick in last night's NBA Draft, Duke's Kyrie Irving, who played all of 11 college games before being taken No. 1 by LeBron's Leftovers, otherwise known as the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"Even though he is a four-year player we still like his upside," said Rivers, dropping a ubiquitous draft catchphrase.
Solid pick for the Celts, but it's safe to say the balance of power in the East has not undergone a tectonic shift. The Miami Heat are not quaking in their Nikes at the prospect of his addition. As much as the Celtics talked up Johnson they acknowledged that if the draft is the only avenue they use to augment their roster then Banner No. 18 will stay on the drawing board.
"The draft is always a futures thing," said Ainge, who tabbed Johnson's Purdue teammate, E'Twaun Moore, in the second round. "There are not very many rookies that come in and contribute to championship-caliber teams. We know that going in. ...We're going to have to add some more veterans to our roster. We'll have at least three young guys on the roster next year, and maybe one or maybe two contribute. Time will tell."
Such is the nature of the draft. The Cavaliers took Justin Harper with the first pick of the second round and the first reaction of draftniks is, "What a steal." Five years from now Justin Harper probably has as much chance of being in the NBA as Justin Timberlake. Harper was traded to Orlando for 2013 and 2014 second-round picks.
Only on draft night could Washington Wizards pick Jan Vesely, who went sixth overall, be called the Czech Blake Griffin with a straight face.
The NBA Draft had a subdued feel this year. There were plenty of awkward interviews and uncomfortable silences from the ESPN broadcast team. But the sartorial selections were mostly banal and there weren't any Green Room soap operas with crestfallen prospects. The most touching moment of the night came when Kansas star Marcus Morris cried after his twin brother, Markieff, got drafted by the Phoenix Suns, the realization sinking in that they would not be playing on the same team.
There was the Jimmer Fredette intrigue. The college hoops cult hero from Ainge's alma mater, Brigham Young, was taken with the 10th overall pick and is on his way to the Sacramento Kings.
The Celtics pick came in right around 10 p.m. They selected MarShon Brooks from Providence College at No. 25. Even though Brooks played his ball down I-95 from the Celtics, his bio said that his favorite player is Kobe Bryant and his favorite team is the Los Angeles Lakers. That made it fitting that the Celtics shipped him to Nets for Johnson in the pre-arranged deal.
The Bruins, who will make their first-round pick this evening, have a much better chance of nabbing an impact contributor through the draft than their TD Garden roommates. The Stanley Cup champions have the No. 9 selection in the first round of tonight's NHL Entry Draft, courtesy of the Phil Kessel deal.
Copious draft research has me wanting them to select pint-sized puck-moving defenseman Ryan Murphy of the Kitchener Rangers. Murphy has the perfect Boston name and his skill-set is just what the Bruins need. The 18-year-old Murphy finished first in the Ontario Hockey League in points among blue-liners with 26 goals and 53 assists, and he is billed as a power-play quarterback.
Of course, I was once equally excited about the Black and Gold drafting defenseman Johnathan Aiken in 1996 (8th overall) and Lars Jonsson (7th overall) in 2000.
The best part of the NHL Entry Draft is each team journeying to the podium and saying they're "proud" to select Player X and then rattling off every affiliation he has had since day care. Has a team ever been not proud to select a player?
I'm proud to announce I will be watching. It's a draft after all.
Shaquille O'Neal announced his retirement via Twitter and the social media tool Tout on Wednesday, but he formally -- or more accurately, traditionally -- announced it today in a meeting with the media at his Orlando-area home. The Big Sobriquet's sign-off has prompted discussion of Shaq's place in the history of the league and in the pantheon of all-time great centers.
The list is fungible, but Shaq is among my top five centers of all-time. The Big Three of NBA big men are non-negotiable -- Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- after that it's in the eye of the beholder among Moses Malone, Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson to round out the starting five.The one historical knock on Shaq is that for a man his size he was not as utterly dominant a rebounder as you would have expected, failing to ever win a rebounding crown. He also had a penchant for defensive disinterest at times.
All this consideration of Shaq's place in hoops history also got me thinking about how many parallels there are between O'Neal and LeBron James, who with brute strength and dazzling athleticism is really the Shaq of shooting guards/small forwards. It is O'Neal, not Michael Jordan, that is a more relevant and apt comparison for King James.
Both O'Neal and James are physically freaks of nature whose sheer stature defined their games. Watching James bull past and bowl over opponents on the way to the rim doesn't remind you of Jordan. It brings to mind Shaq riding to the rim with hapless and helpless defenders draped all over him. Covering Shaq was a bruising task, and checking LeBron is a black-and-blue assignment as well; just ask Paul Pierce.
Both O'Neal and James were/are impossible to defend at times simply because of the way they're built. The sui generis physical prowess they're endowed with is their greatest gift, but it also works against them, as their ability to physically dominate opponents comes with outsized expectations and little sympathy.
Both left their original teams via free agency -- devastating the franchises they left behind -- to head to more glamorous destinations. In Shaq's case it was leaving Orlando for the Los Angeles Lakers. In LeBron's it was abandoning Cleveland to take his talents to South Beach.
Both changed their numbers when they made their career moves. Shaq couldn't wear 32 in Los Angeles because of Magic Johnson, donning No. 34 for the purple and gold. James, on record as saying Michael Jordan's No. 23 should be retired across the league, wore MJ's famous digits in Cleveland, but switched to No. 6 with the Heat.
Both made the NBA Finals early in their careers and were swept away. Shaq led the Orlando Magic to the Finals in 1995, his third season, and was broomed by the Houston Rockets. LeBron led the Cavaliers to the Finals in 2007, his fourth season, and was swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
Both endured heaps of criticism for not winning a championship. Shaq is famous for uttering the line: "I've won at every level, except college and pro." But the criticism of not winning a title stung him, as it does LeBron, who couldn't win in Cleveland last season with Shaq as part of his supporting cast. Remember Shaq pronouncing he had come to Ohio to get a "ring for the King" finally?
Shaq finally silenced his critics by winning a title in his eighth season. LeBron, currently playing in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, is in his ... eighth season.
Both are so famous that only one-name suffices like Madonna, Cher or Magic. They are Shaq and LeBron, surnames optional.
Shaq was an even better showman than he was a basketball player during his 19 seasons, which is saying something considering the esteemed company his name is now being mentioned in. He pulled down endorsements, movie roles and rap album contracts like he yanked down baskets and backboards. His comic book hero persona and oversized build, which went with an equally outsized personality, made him the Big Kid until the very end.
James, who has been quoted in the past discussing building a global brand and has a playful nature, is equally adept as a pitchman. Unlike a lot of NBA players his best acting does not come on the court. James is the best pro athlete actor this side of Peyton Manning. Love those State Farm Insurance commercials, 'Bron.
Perhaps that's why when asked about Shaq's retirement James mentioned Shaq's marketability as well as his basketball ability, according to an account from the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
"His 19 years in this league goes unprecedented, what he was able to do for this league, not only on the court, but off the court," said James. "I think he's probably one of the only big men to ever play this game to be able to market and to be able to be marketable off the court."
James has a true appreciation for that skill.
Shaq's brief and career-ending stint in a Celtics uniform will be merely a footnote in a fabulous career. Even a greatly diminished O'Neal was a force while healthy for the Celtics, even if his legacy here will be public appearances (Harvard Square and conducting the Boston Pops) and the Kendrick Perkins trade.
LeBron's legacy is still undecided, but it was bolstered by Miami eliminating the Celtics this spring. James -- along with an acutely bad Achilles' tendon injury -- turned Shaq into the Big Retiree.
Somehow it seems fitting that Shaq's final games would come against LeBron, maybe the closest thing to a basketball torchbearer that Shaq has.
Simple math dictates that four is a greater sum than three, but NBA math is a bit different. Three can be greater than four. That's why the Celtics' season ended last night in the second round, and their championship window slammed shut along with it.
The Celtics losing this series in five games to the hated Heat wasn't about The Trade. It wasn't about the play of the bench (Boston's bench outscored Miami's 33-12 last night, and Delonte West scored double-digits in all five games). It wasn't about Shaquille O'Neal becoming the Big Fossil.
It was about Miami's younger, better Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh outperforming the Celtics admirable and aging trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, plus point guard Rajon Rondo. Miami's triumphant triumvirate kicked the butts of Boston's Core Four in four out of five games. Throw in one, the number of good arms that a clearly handicapped Rondo played with because of a dislocated left elbow, and it all added up to a fatal numbers game for the Green that had nothing to do with Danny Ainge's ill-fated deal.
"I don't think we ever got great games from our Big Three, and to go against those two guys. ..They were super," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, referring to Wade and James, who averaged 30 and 28 points, respectively, in the series.
I know it's popular in the parquet postmortem to bash Glen "Big Baby" Davis, gang up on Jeff Green, and pine for all-time Celtic great Kendrick Perkins. But this series was never going to be decided by which team possessed the better supporting cast. It was NBA astronomy -- whose stars would shine brightest. Miami's burned bright, and Boston's burned out or got banged up. So, they finally have an on-court accomplishment to celebrate in South Beach, while we're left to ponder what's next for Boston's brave banner bunch.
The Celtics can add pieces as Rivers said in the aftermath of last night's loss, but unless Rondo gets a jump shot and becomes Derrick Rose or is traded for Chris Paul, the championship drive-through window is no longer serving these Celtics. Pro sports is a Darwinian endeavor, and you can't reverse devolution.
The Heat aren't going anywhere. The Bulls aren't going to get worse, and the Knicks are one piece away from another trio that trumps the Celtics threesome. The Celtics are becoming an outdated model.
In the NBA, 26, 27 and 29 -- the ages of LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh -- are prime numbers, and 35, 34 and 33 -- the ages of Allen, Garnett and Pierce -- are the digits of decline.
Miami's unholy hoops trinity outscored the Core Four in Game 1 (67-58), Game 2 (80 to 56), Game 4 (83 points to 61) and last night in Game 5 (81 to 51), all Miami wins. The Celtics' fearsome foursome showed fighting spirit in Game 3, embodied by KG's monster game (28 points, 18 boards) and Rondo's one-armed heroics, outpointing Miami's trio, 76 to 44. That's the only game in the series Boston won, and that wasn't a coincidence.
"We gave a lot in Game 3. I know I never felt that we could ever get that same effort back from our guys," said Rivers.
You can replace "guys" with Garnett. You have to feel for KG, who turns 35 in a week. Four years ago he would have punked Bosh like his name was Gasol in this series. The tank was on 'E' after Game 3, during which he logged 37 minutes and 47 seconds, his most playing time since Feb. 24, when the Celtics were shorthanded in the wake of the Perkins trade.
KG had a 12-point first quarter last night. Then he faded like an old photograph, hitting 1 of his last 6 shots to finish with 15 points. Garnett (15 points and 11 rebounds) and Bosh (14 points and 11 rebounds) were a statistical wash. That was the one Big Three vs. Big Three matchup the Celtics had to win decisively.
We all thought it would be the front-running Heat who would crack under the pressure, but the Heat won all the close games in this series while the Celtics wilted. In Game 2, it was 80-80 with 7:10 to go and Miami reeled off 14 unanswered points. Their Big Three outscored the Celtics trio of future Hall of Famers, 25 to 8, and the Core Four, 25-15. In Game 4, it was LeBron, Bosh and Wade scoring all 29 points for the Heat in the fourth quarter and OT, while Boston's Core Four had 13 points and one badly botched final play of regulation.
Last night, Miami's threesome had 23 of the Heat's 26 fourth-quarter points, while KG, Pierce and Allen shot a combined 1 of 9 for 2 points. Rondo wasn't even on the floor.
It's great that Rivers wants to come back and that Allen plans to pick up his player option, but there really isn't much hope for the Celtics overtaking the Heat moving forward. Revivals are rare. Recent NBA history says that once the torch is passed to a new generation of ballers that usually is it for the old guard. That was the case for Larry Bird's Celtics, Isiah Thomas's Bad Boys or the underappreciated Pistons team the Celtics dethroned in the inaugural season of KG, Pierce and Allen.
It was only fitting then that LeBron had the last 10 decisive points in the Celtics' playoff demise last night.
Other than Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, and his team's jersey-immolating fan base, the biggest losers of The Decision turned out to be the Celtics.
After all the hard work that went into coaxing back their coach and reassembling their roster for another title run, their biggest advantage -- the presence of the Big Three -- was trumped by a newer, better, LeBron-built-in model.
The Celtics and Lakers usually eye each other warily from across David Stern's room, like a couple of kids at a middle school dance waiting for the other to make the first move. Well, the Lakers made the first move -- an early exit from the playoffs.
Before a game last month against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center, young Lakers staffers intently watched a Celtics-Sixers game, 3,000 miles away, openly hoping for another go-round with the Green. But there will be no lucky 13th NBA Finals meeting between the rivals, no rubber match for Kobe Bryant and the Big Three, and it's entirely possible we could have an NBA Finals without the Celtics, the Lakers or the Spurs. Three teams that have played in 11 of the last 12 Finals, winning 10 titles. That's how quickly the basketball balance of power can shift in the NBA.
The NBA's old-guard has just looked old this postseason, and the Celtics are all that's left of it.
The same Lakers team that outlasted the Celtics last June in a tractor-pull of a Game 7 of the NBA Finals, looked aged, slow, unathletic and overwhelmed against the Dallas Mavericks, who unceremoniously swept the two-time defending NBA champions out of the playoffs and Phil Jackson into retirement. The Celtics, locked in a death match with the Miami Heat that resumes tonight at TD Garden with Game 4, had to shudder, knowing that a similar end (of an era) could await them.
The shocking and -- thanks to Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum -- disgraceful demise of the Lakers is a reminder of just how difficult it is to write-off regular-season struggles and peccadillos as insignificant once the postseason arrives.
The 2010 Celtics were an all-time anomaly. Teams don't downshift for large chunks of the regular season and then simply kick all their bad habits and kick their game into overdrive in the playoffs. What the Celtics did last year was one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of the NBA, and they're basically trying to repeat it. Think of the Philadelphia Flyers trying to rally back from 3-0 twice against the Bruins.
It was an accomplishment that the Celtics' West Coast counterparts, the Lakers, couldn't match, even with Bryant. The Celtics and Lakers both seemed to suffer from regular-season ennui while waiting around for the real games to start. The Lakers finished 57-25. The Celtics posted a 56-26 record.
The Lakers started out 17-1 after the All-Star break, while the Celtics, paralyzed by the trade of future Hall of Fame center Kendrick Perkins (when are we raising the No. 43 to the rafters?), won 16 games total after having the East's best record at the All-Star break. However, LA followed its 17-1 spurt with a five-game losing streak that foreshadowed their premature playoff departure.
Now, we are left to ponder the fate of the Celtics. Was the emotional and heroic Game 3 victory over Miami and its Unholy Trinity the beginning of another improbable playoff high-wire act or was it the last gasp of another member of the NBA's ruling class?
Unlike some, I'm not ready to condemn the Celtics to the dustbin of playoff basketball. Perhaps against another opponent, but not this one. Psychologically, the Heat are more fragile than a porcelain doll. They've whined in public about people rooting against them and sobbed in private following defeats.
Power forward Chris Bosh has a pinched nerve in his neck and a pit in his stomach. Bosh admitted to ESPN's Brian Windhorst that he was nervous before Game 3 because of the charged up environment in the Garden and that affected his performance.
Are you kidding me?
This is the first time in the series that there is any real pressure on the Heat. If Dwayne Wade and LeBron James can't carry the Heat to victory in Game 4 then their spirited performances in the first two games in South Florida are just more fodder for the idea that they lead a team of front-runners.
The Celtics might be able to survive this series on grit, guts and Jedi mind tricks. But they also might meet the same end as the Spurs, who lost to a more athletic team, or the Lakers, who dug themselves too deep a hole to recover from.
We all know that Rajon Rondo is one-armed and dangerous, but the Heat will have had two whole days to prepare to play him; the Heat were defending him well before his injury. Rondo is the most athletic player the Celtics have, and having him diminished in this series is a huge blow.
The Celtics are a banged up team: Rondo's arm, Paul Pierce's Achilles' strain, Ray Allen's bruised chest, Delonte West's shoulder, Jermaine O'Neal's wrist, Shaquille O'Neal's general calcified state. What does it say when your healthiest starter against the Heat is Kevin Garnett, whose physical state has been the subject of constant fretting for two and a half seasons?
Garnett, who turns 35 later this month, is going to have to carry the Celtics in this series. He is averaging more than 37 minutes a game, and in Game 3 played 37:47, his most minutes since Feb. 24, when he logged 38:16. That was the night the Celtics suited up only nine players because of the Perkins swap. KG is reaching the redline minutes-wise, and you can only cross your fingers that his engine doesn't blow.
We've learned never to count this Celtics team out, but it's also hard to ignore what is happening around them.
The Lakers', 122-86, season-sealing loss to the Mavericks was their second-worst playoff defeat in franchise history. The worst... was issued by the Celtics in the clincher of the 2008 NBA Finals, a 39-point beatdown of LA.
That doesn't seem that long ago, but in the NBA it's a lifetime.
The Celtics love a challenge, and now they'll get one.
It's not a coincidence the Celtics two most dominant performances of the playoffs came at Madison Square Garden. The Celtics, who dispatched the Knicks in four games, reveled in ruining the return of playoff basketball to MSG for the first time in seven years, sending the assorted celebrities in the crowd scurrying for their limousines before the final buzzer of both Games 3 and 4, like subway rodents exposed by a flashlight.
But like Spike Lee and his beloved Knicks, homecourt advantage is making an early playoff exit for the Celtics. They'll likely be playing without it the rest of the way. They're also are done with preliminaries. Starting now, all opponents will flash legitimate championship credentials.
The Celtics will be taking their talents to South Beach for an inevitable clash with the Miami Heat in the second round, unless the Philadelphia 76ers, who went down 3-0 before staving off elimination Sunday, give us another 3-0 Philadelphia comeback story.
Some important questions about the Celtics were answered in the Knicks series, while others were raised or left for Miami.
Three answered questions:
1. Will Rajon Rondo revert to form in the playoffs? -- This was the biggest question the Celtics had to answer in the first round and the resounding answer was yes. After a puzzling final 21 games of the regular season, Rondo resurrected his game against the Knicks, averaging 19 points and 12 assists, while shooting 50 percent from the floor. By comparison, he shot 41 percent from the field and averaged 9.1 assists per game over the final two months of the regular season.
Rondo got his groove back after the Knicks challenged him to be an offensive threat. He dropped a playoff career-high 30 points in Game 2, followed that up with a triple-double that included a Celtics' playoff-record 20 assists in Game 3 and then had 21 points and 12 assists in the clincher. His play at the point was so sublime that you can almost overlook his 53.8 percent shooting from the free-throw line. Almost.
2. Will the Celtics get anything from either O'Neal?-- We still don't know about Shaquille O'Neal, who has been out of commission longer than the USS Constitution, but Jermaine O'Neal emerged as the Celtics starting center and a legitimate defensive presence. If you had read me that sentence six months ago I would strained an oblique keeling over in incredulity.
Most will remember Jermaine for his work in Game 1, when he had 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting, but it was his four blocks that night that set the tone. JO averaged 2.5 blocks per game against the Knicks and held meetings with Carmelo Anthony at the rim on a regular basis. All the people clamoring for Shaq's return to clog up the middle, don't seem to recall Rondo running wild against Cleveland last year in the playoffs to the tune of 20.7 points and 11.8 assists per game.
3. Can the Celtics still play championship-caliber defense without Perkins? -- Yes, they can. The Knicks were the second-highest scoring team in the NBA this season (106.9 points per game) on 45.7 percent shooting from the field. The Celtics held the Knicks to an average of 90.8 points per game on 38.6 percent shooting.
Sure, Melo went off for 42 in Game 2, but New York never broke 100 points. It certainly helped that Chauncey Billups was hors de hoops with a knee injury and that Amar'e Stoudemire tweaked his back, but the Celtics still turned up the defensive pressure. Two of the biggest plays of the series where on the defensive end -- Paul Pierce drawing a dubious offensive foul on Melo in Game 1 to set up Ray Allen's game-winner, and Kevin Garnett's steal of a Jared Jeffries pass to seal Game 2.
Three unanswered questions:
1. What can the Celtics expect from Shaq? -- Who knows? O'Neal appears to be getting closer to returning from his calf strain and Achilles' tendon injuries, but we've heard that before. Now, the Celtics have bought him a whole week to get ready for Miami. Shaq would certainly help the Celtics, particularly on the offense end. He's a post-up presence that frees up space for other players, and he looked great in his 5-minute, 29-second cameo against the Pistons. He could also help the Celtics on the boards, where KG (11.3 rebounds per game against the Knicks) is not getting a lot of help.
2. Is Jeff Green capable of making an impact? -- Too early to tell. Green looked timid at times in the Knicks series, and logged 12 minutes in Game 2, his fewest as a Celtic. He often plays as if he's just trying to stay out of the way, and has too many plays like yesterday, when he dribbled the ball off his foot in the second half. Green needs to be an X-factor off the bench for the Green in at least one series for them to reach the NBA Finals. It doesn't have to be offensively, necessarily, but Green can do more on the boards (3.5 rebounds per game against New York) and on the defensive end. He's going to see time guarding LeBron James in the Heat series.
3. Do the Celtics still have a psychological edge over opponents? -- Incomplete sample size. Towards the end of the regular season there were whispers that teams like Chicago and Miami simply weren't intimidated by playing the Celtics without Perkins. The Knicks didn't appear to be scared of the big, bad, Celtics until crunch time, when the Celtic Mystique became part of the equation. LeBron has never beaten the Celtics in a playoff series, and the new-look Heat only defeated the Celtics once during the regular season. This could be reminiscent of the 1987 Celtics series with the Detroit Pistons. Detroit was arguably a more talented team at that point, but they had a mental block when it came to parquet and shamrocks.
Win or lose, The Trade is a subplot of every playoff game the Celtics play this season. We've seen both sides of the much-debated Kendrick Perkins deal in the first two games of the Celtics' wildly entertaining playoff series with the New York Knicks.
Game 1 was Exhibit A for the belief that Perkins, while extremely likable and quite valuable, was not irreplaceable. Any reasonably talented, relatively healthy center is going to look good playing with four All-Stars (see: O'Neal, Jermaine).
Last night, was a night for the deal's detractors, even though the Celtics squeezed out a 96-93 victory and a 2-0 series lead. Jeff Green played 12 milquetoast minutes -- his fewest as a Celtic -- and collected one more point (six) than fouls (five). While Carmelo Anthony was setting fire to the Celtics' defense with 42 points, Green was mostly watching Melo's one-man show from a front-row seat.
The core tenet of The Trade for its advocates is that Danny Ainge got the best player in the deal, Green. And that his ability to guard players like Anthony and LeBron James is crucial to the Celtics' playoff hopes because at age 33 it's asking too much for Paul Pierce to burn the playoff candle at both ends of the court.
But that's exactly what the captain, who had 20 points, had to do last night in 45 grueling minutes. Rivers simply had no choice because Green was foul-plagued and in a fog. If Pierce has to repeat last night's performance all playoffs, going from Anthony to LeBron James to Luol Deng, then it's going to take a toll -- both on him and the Celtics' title hopes.
"It's hard," said Pierce, who is averaging 45 minutes a night against the Knicks. "Winning is not easy and those are the things that I've got to do in this series. I've got to be a defensive guy. I've got to do a better job on Melo, and I have a responsibility on this ball club to be a scorer, a guy that they go to. That's what it is, and that's what being a leader of this team is all about, and I accept the challenge."
Accepting the challenge is what Green needs to do in Game 3 Friday night at Madison Square Garden. The Boston bench has been badly outplayed this series by their Knicks counterparts, mostly a collection of spare parts siphoned off from other teams to fill out the post-Melo, cap-crunched roster.
Might be time for the Core Four to hang out the help wanted sign.
Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, who dropped a playoff career-high 30 points last night, and Kevin Garnett, who delivered the game-winning basket, combined to score 80 of the Celtics 96 points in Game 2. That's four players with five-sixths of the scoring. For the series, they've accounted for 80 percent of the Celtics points.
The Celtics' second-unit has scored just 22 points combined in two games. The Knicks reserves have totaled 23 points per game in the first two contests.
The Celtics can lean solely on the Core Four in the first round and get away with it, but they shouldn't have to, not against a New York team that was playing without Chauncey Billups (left knee) and had Amar'e Stoudemire miss the entire second half due to back spasms.
This over-reliance on the starters, especially Pierce, is not a blueprint for Banner 18. It's a design for playoff disappointment. Last year, when Pierce had to guard LeBron for six games against Cleveland he shot 34.5 percent from the field and averaged only 13.5 points per game. James running mates then were Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams. Now, they're Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Pierce admitted the Celtics need more backup from the backups.
"It's about effort, truthfully," said Pierce. "That group, if they can just go out, play hard, rebound, scrap, play defense, and maintain a lead when we get it, that's really what it's all about. We can't have a 10-point lead, the bench comes in, [and they lose it] right away. So, hopefully they understand what's at stake. It's the playoffs, so every possession is big."
The Celtics' two previous runs to the NBA Finals featured reliable reserves pitching in.
Last season, Boston got contributions from Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Tony Allen, Rasheed Wallace and Nate Robinson off the bench. Remember the infamous "Shrek and Donkey" game in the NBA Finals when Robinson and Davis combined for 30 points?The 2008 title team sported James Posey, Leon Powe, Eddie House and P.J. Brown. The comeback from 24 points down in Game 4 of the Finals was keyed by Posey and House.
When the Celtics traded for Green, Rivers referenced Posey and how his versatility was a boon off the bench. A similar role was envisioned for Green in the playoffs, but it has not materialized, highlighting in hindsight just how important the spinal injury to Marquis Daniels was. If Daniels doesn't get hurt does Ainge play it out with Perk instead of dealing for Green?
It's not all about Green, but The Trade makes him the focal point of the bench's failure. Davis has not had his customary impact so far in the series. Delonte West still appears affected by a balky ankle, and Nenad Krstic, the other part of The Trade, has lost his confidence and that of the coaching staff.
"They've got to be our energy group out there causing turnovers, rebounding, running the ball," said Pierce. "Hopefully, we can get them to understand that and they'll be better as the series goes along."
It's not just about this series. It's about the big picture.
The Celtics can win a title without Perkins. The Celtics could have won one with him and without a trusted bench. But they can't win one without either.
The Celtics and Bruins share the same home address. That's about all they have in common when it comes to delivering in the playoffs. The two franchises that call TD Garden home are playoff polar opposites.
The Bruins shrink from the moment. The Celtics rise to the occasion. That much was obvious last night when the Celtics eked out an 87-85 win over the New York Knicks in their playoff opener, executing in what Magic Johnson called "winnin' time" to get the victory on a day when upsets sprang up like weeds across the NBA playoffs.
As Bill Parcells said, "Confidence is only born of demonstrated ability." The Celtics have demonstrated an ability to win the most important games of a season at the most crucial time of the season. The Bruins have demonstrated an ability to collapse under the weight of such games. They blew a 3-0 series lead in the second round last year, and have dug themselves a 2-0 deficit in their playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens, which resumes tonight at the Bell Centre.
Honestly, the Knicks probably outplayed the Celtics for much of Game 1. The Knicks rag-tag bench outscored the Celtics reserves, 21-8. Amar'e Stoudemire was not as easy to guard as Glen "Big Baby" Davis had foolishly claimed. In fact, he was nigh unstoppable with 28 points and 11 rebounds.
But when it really mattered New York was no match for a Celtics team that operated with the efficiency of a Swiss timepiece on a pair of crucial in-bounds, offensive sets, the last of which resulted in Ray Allen's game-winning 3-pointer with 11.6 seconds left. The Celtics also clamped down defensively to hold the Knicks, who shot 54.5 percent to lead 51-39 at the break, to just 32.6 percent shooting in the second half. That included a 1-of-11 second half from Carmelo Anthony.
"Regardless of how bad we were shooting or how bad we were playing defense I thought down the stretch we found a way to win, and that was because of our experience," said Paul Pierce.
Contrast Pierce's confident remarks with Milan Lucic saying the befuddled Bruins are "in trouble right now."
The Bruins are by no means done, but if they want to keep skating this spring they should take a page from the playoff playbook of their Causeway Street comrades. They need to go Green, and I'm not talking about recycling.
Say what you will about their regular season decorum, but the Celtics know when it's time to elevate their game. The Bruins are the inverse. They're a regular-season outfit that can't find a clear path past the second-round and could exit the playoffs before that if they don't display some esprit de corps this evening in Montreal.
The Celtics' best players -- Pierce (18 points and the drawing of an offensive foul on Anthony late), Kevin Garnett (15 points and 13 rebounds), Rajon Rondo (10 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists) and Allen (team-high 24 points) -- all answered the bell when it mattered most. Meanwhile, the Bruins' first line of Lucic, David Krejci, and Nathan Horton has not netted a single, solitary point in two games, and goalie Tim Thomas has been shakier than a three-legged table.
While Bruins coach Claude Julien plods along with his plans and rolled out his fourth line down by a pair of goals late in the third period, Celtics coach Doc Rivers conducted a comeback with his X's and O's acumen. Doc drew up a pair of Picasso plays in the final minute with his team trailing by three (85-82).
The first was an in-bounds alley-oop from Rondo to Kevin Garnett that cut the Knicks lead to 85-84 with 37.8 seconds left, a crucial basket because it took virtually no time off the clock. The second set piece was the game-winner, a pick-and-roll between Pierce and Allen that left Allen in position to do what he has done more times than anyone in NBA history -- drain a 3-pointer.
"You see yourself, man, the last couple of plays that we ran he drew up. They were amazing," said Jeff Green. "He's an amazing coach."
If it's any consolation to the Bruins, they're not alone in looking up to the Green.
The Celtics are the only one of the Big Four professional sports teams in this town that has won a playoff game in the last 10 months. Dating to Game 6 of the NBA Finals last year at Staples Center, New England teams had suffered five straight postseason defeats to bitter rivals -- Lakers, Jets, Canadiens -- before the Celtics came through last night against the Knicks.
The Knicks remain a dangerous first-round opponent for the Celtics because of the presence of Stoudemire and Anthony, who were emboldened by coming so close in Game 1. Those two alone make them a more threatening foe than the Philadelphia 76ers. Stoudemire took the game over in the fourth quarter with 12 points, including a ridiculous 360-degree layup. Anthony was the NBA's third-leading scorer this year.
But the Celtics have something that neither the Knicks nor their Garden-mates, the Bruins, have -- a proven playoff portfolio. And for one night, they also had another attribute their Black and Gold brethren lack -- a No. 1 center. Different sports, different responsibilities, but crucial for both clubs.
Kendrick who? Jermaine O'Neal, last seen in the playoffs shooting 9 for 44 against the Celtics last season while with the Heat, was the paint-patrolling savior last night. The "other O'Neal" scored 12 points on perfect 6 for 6 shooting, adding 4 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. His play helped turn the tide in the third quarter, when the Celtics were down by 12. Rivers said his team won the game because of O'Neal.
No, they won because they know how to win these games. That's a nebulous quality that a team either has or it doesn't.
That's the basketball equivalent of what the Celtics will try to accomplish in the playoffs, which start on Sunday against the New York Knicks. After more than a month of mediocre play, a sub-.500 record in their final 21 games (10-11) and a tumble down to third place in the Eastern Conference standings, the Celtics begin writing the final chapter of their season -- and possibly of the Big Three/Doc Rivers renaissance. They've finally reached the basketball that really matters to them, and the only games their season will be graded upon.
They want a big, fat B -- for Banner 18.
Of course there is always the possibility that like that dawdling college student, the Celtics oversleep and never get to hand in their best work. But on the brink of the playoffs, Ainge remains confident in the championship chances of his team.
"We faded a little bit at the end, but I think this team has what it takes," Ainge said.
The reality is that these Celtics aren't just playing for another championship, or to avenge last season's Game 7 loss in Los Angeles or to augment their legacy. They could be playing to stay together. This could be the last go-around for this incarnation of the Green. Ainge said that thought has crossed his mind and has been broached with the team.
"Oh, yeah. This may be it. This may be our chance. You just never know. We have talked about that," said Ainge. "I hope they have that mentality."
Based on his history as a hoops decision-maker and his comments about how he would have handled the decline of the original Big Three, Ainge won't hesitate to break this team up if it fails to reach the Finals. He's not going to let them simply age gracefully and cede Eastern Conference eminence to the young guns in Miami and Chicago.
Perhaps the Kendrick Perkins trade was just the beginning of the deconstruction of the Celtics. That's a sobering thought for the parishioners of the parquet. But no roster is safe with Danny the Dealer, and Ainge already gave these guys another shot.
This is a bonus season for the Core Four of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo.
After the final horn sounded last June at Staples Center and the confetti rained down from the rafters, it looked like the closing credits had rolled on this team. An emotional Rivers punctuated his postgame press conference that night with past tense references and received farewell applause as he left the podium. Then miraculously the band was back together, with Rivers, Pierce and Ray Allen returning in lockstep.
Win or lose, Rivers could be gone at the end of the Celtics' playoff run, especially with son Austin, a future NBA lottery pick, off to Duke. Allen and Garnett both enter the final years of their contracts, which means their expiring deals heading into the 2012 free-agent frenzy with Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, et al might be able to bring back retooling parts in return. Plus, there is the seeming inevitability of an NBA lockout that could make the NFL's labor dispute look like a pillow fight. That's a lot of uncertainty.
The Green going Al Green ("Let's Stay Together") might be just the added motivation they need to transition from energy conservation to self-preservation and make another spirited run to the NBA Finals without homecourt advantage.
The fate of the Core Four's future rests largely in the hands of its junior member, point guard Rajon Rondo. Rondo has had more success selling jerseys than sinking shots lately. Over his last 21 games Rondo is shooting 41 percent from the floor and averaging 9.1 assists, compared to an average of 12.1 per game before that stretch.
Theories abound as to why. They range from nagging injuries, including plantar fasciitis, to being burned out from his summer stint with USA Basketball, to having a hole in his heart after teammate/soulmate Perkins was shipped to Oklahoma City.
"I think that those are just all excuses," said Ainge. "I think that Rajon is a pretty tough kid. I don't think he's that sentimental. He's friends with Perk. I think he understands the game. I think he is way more professional than to let anything like that bother him.
"By the way, he was playing pretty well. We won five games in a row right after that [trade]. But I think he's been sort of banged up, but not really hurt. I just think it's a lot. The kid was playing at such an unbelievable level. That's hard to maintain. ...I think there is a lot put on him. I think nobody has really played at the same level they played before the All-Star game."
Ainge admitted the road in the East is tougher this time around -- "New York in the first round, it's scary. They got some great game finishers. It just gets tougher from there."
Indeed it does with the Heat and Bulls lurking, and homecourt advantage lacking for the Celtics.
But Ainge believes his team is up to the task. That the possible final run is a Finals run.
"I really know what's inside these players, especially those Four," said Ainge. "I know what's inside Delonte [West]. I know what's inside Big Baby. I've seen that resolve in them. I've seen how they know the moment. They thrive and live for the moment. So, we'll see. I believe in them, and I can't wait for the playoffs to start. It's exciting."
Sunday represents a fresh start for the Celtics. Hopefully, it's the beginning of a long playoff run and not the beginning of the end for a brilliant bunch.
The Celtics swore this season would be different. That they wouldn't treat the regular season like a warm-up act. That they understood the dynamics in the Eastern Conference had changed. That playoff positioning and top seeding were not optional this time.
They told a little green lie.
The Celtics waved the white flag on the regular season in Washington, idling the Core Four and conceding the No. 2 seed to the Heat. The Celtics' discombobulated bench lost in overtime, 95-94, sending the team to its 11th defeat in 20 games. Miami won in Atlanta, officially relegating the Celtics to the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference and a date with the New York Knicks in round one. Unofficially, the Celtics' fate was sealed when they got smoked by the Bulls and Heat in statement games in a span of three days.
For the second straight postseason the Celtics are going to try to make the NBA Finals with a road show. This is a team that simply likes doing things the hard and hard-headed way. They like to play with a degree of difficulty. Well, they have it now, and it's 9.0.
Somehow the Celtics have managed to turn departed center/savior Kendrick Perkins into a basketball martyr. Without Perk, the new patron saint of the parquet, they have gone 14-12 to tumble to third in the East. (The Celtics' post-Perkins record is not equal to the one with Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. Those guys didn't suit up deadline day in Denver, and neither would've Perkins, who was nursing a sprained left knee that kept him out until March 14.)
They were 41-14 at the time of The Trade, averaging 98.2 points per game and allowing 91.2, while holding opponents to 43.5 percent from the field. Since The Trade, the Celtics are scoring 92.3 points per game -- because we all know that Perk would have helped in that department with his varied assortment of low-post moves and deft touch -- and surrendering 94.2 points per game, even though opponents' shooting percentage has actually decreased to 43.2.
You can blame it on The Trade. Or the unraveling of Rajon Rondo's game. Or the Big Inactive, Shaquille O'Neal. Or that Danny Ainge never learned the periodic table in high school chemistry. The reasons for the Celtics' playoff predicament don't matter at this point. As a wise coach once said, "It is what it is."
The Celtics are basically in the same position they were last year, except the competition is better this time around.
The Knicks are a superior first-round opponent to the one-man show Miami Heat team the Celtics defeated in the first-round last year. That team's second option was Jermaine O'Neal, 'nuff said. New York, winners of seven straight, has two legitimate superstars in Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, and they're going to treat this matchup like its the NBA Finals, not round one.
The Celtics could rest their starters for a month and this series would still be emotionally and physically draining.
The Celtics have also given real hope to the cubic zirconia of championship contenders, the Heat, who now know if they face Boston in round two that a deciding seventh game is going to be in front of the Miami glitterati. Throughout the regular season, the Heat has proven to be a mentally fragile outfit. I would have given them a 10 percent chance of winning a Game 7 at TD Garden in front of a hostile crowd. Put LeBron James and the South Florida front-runners on their own floor in a deciding game with the Celtics and the odds shift to 50-50.
The battle cry of Boston basketball has become "27-27" -- an oft-repeated reference to the Celtics' regular season record over the final 54 games last season before their remarkable run to Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
But this isn't the same team that pulled off that feat -- both literally and figuratively. Rondo, Paul Pierce and Celtics coach Doc Rivers have all admitted that. Last year's positioning was the result of strategy; this year's is the result of struggling.
"Well, last year we had a team that had been together. You know, there wasn't a lot of changes. We knew each other," said Rivers to reporters last night. "Shutting them down was easy. We practiced. We kind of knew what we were doing. This year has been more difficult. We only have five players from last year's team. We have 10 new players, five of them recently, so it's been a little more difficult, especially since we've really had no practice time. "
Rivers was conflicted by the decision to switch to backup systems for last night's game and the season finale tomorrow against the Knicks. On the one hand, if his starters are to duplicate their Herculean feat they need to be well-rested. On the other hand, his team needed to gain some confidence and continuity before the playoffs.
"This was a tough one," said Rivers. "It was the right one because at the end of the day it's got to be about our team and whatever is best for our team, even over seeding. ...We decided to do this, and it was a very difficult decision."
The Celtics will really rue forfeiting last night's game if the Lakers, currently losers of five straight and fighting for the second-seed in the West, end up finishing a game ahead of them and have homecourt in a Finals rubber-match. Los Angeles enters its game with San Antonio tonight at 55-25, a half-game better than the Celtics.
Wasn't avoiding that scenario sort of the whole point of this season?
In some ways, the worst thing that happened to the Celtics was being able to go 27-27 last year and just turn it on because it entitled them to just shrug off regular-season failure, which is what the last two months now qualify as.
Rajon Rondo has become lost, wandering in the basketball wilderness. Until he finds his way back the Celtics can't find theirs moving forward.
That harsh reality, more than his banged-up pinkie finger, is why I believe coach Doc Rivers sat out his pertinacious point guard last night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was a one-game forced vacation. The Celtics can spin it however they want, but Rondo needed a mental health day as much as a physical one.
When these Celtics won their first NBA title in 2008 the question was whether Boston could win it all with Rondo at the point. Now, there is no question they can't win it again without him. The hope is that he returns to the court tonight against Indiana renewed and re-focused and that the team can resume its regularly-scheduled championship pursuit.
Whatever is bothering Rondo -- injuries, the shocking trade of best friend Kendrick Perkins, his shots not falling, a combination of the three -- has metastasized to the point where it is threatening to undermine the Celtics' season. Rondo's funk is a more pressing issue than the always imminent returns of Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal or the absence of Perk.
It's not fair to blame one player for the Celtics' recent struggles, but Rondo is the quarterback, the catalyst for the Green. He has been off his game, shooting 32 percent and averaging 6.4 points and 7.1 assists in his last nine games, and the Celtics have been in a tailspin. Last night's uninspired 85-82 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves pushed their record to 5-6 in their last 11 games.
During those 11 games, the Celtics have shot 43.7 percent from the floor and topped 50 percent just once -- in a comeback win in New Orleans. For the season, the Celtics are still the No. 1 team in field goal percentage in the league, shooting 48.4 percent, but they had hovered around 50 percent for much of the year.
Like hotels and restaurants, NBA point guard is a service industry. For much of this season Rondo was the Four Seasons. Recently, he's been more like a Holiday Inn.
What makes Rondo great is his unbridled defiance, the force of will of his personality and his playing style. Not content to take a backseat to the Big Three, he forced us to redefine them as the Big Four. He doesn't back down from trash-talk with NBA royalty like Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, and he relishes going in amongst the NBA's redwoods and coming down with rebounds.
But that same force of will can become a negative for teammates and Rivers to deal with when it becomes sustained stubbornness. It was that way Rondo's rookie season and at times last season, and it is right now.
Was there any doubt that when Rivers unleashed his diatribe about his team being selfish following the home loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday that one of the players he was referring to was Rondo?
“Right now, I just think we’ve become very, very selfish," an irritated Rivers said. "Not as far as trying to get our own, but everything is about how we’re playing individually instead of how the team is playing. You can see it. A guy struggles. He pouts. He moans. Everything is 'me, me, me' on our team right now, feeling sorry for themselves instead of giving themselves to the team and playing. You can just see it manifest throughout the team. Until we can get through that we will continue to have results like we had tonight."
The next game the Celtics play after Rivers' rant about self-centered behavior, Rondo is a DNP. That's not a coincidence, whether Rondo aggravated the pinkie against Charlotte that night and again in practice the following day or not.
Anyone who has watched Rondo play since he came into the league knows that he's far too tough to let a pinkie injury be the sole reason he sits out a game. Not to mention that Mavericks forward Shawn Marion is playing with a mangled pinkie finger without issue.
Rivers had to rein him in and remind him exactly whose team this is, especially after Rondo questioned Rivers's playcalling following the team's loss to Memphis last Wednesday, during which Rondo shot just 2 for 12 and made some questionable decisions down the stretch.
Enough was enough.
This is a strange detour for what was shaping up as arguably the best season of Rondo's career. He got off to a sizzling start, setting an NBA record for the most assists through the first five games (82), and he has led the league in assists practically wire-to-wire. He had games of 24, 23 and 19 assists before the All-Star break. The 24- and 23-assist games both came when he posted triple-doubles.
In the past 25 NBA seasons, since 1985-86, there have been six instances where a player recorded a triple-double with 20 or more assists. No player had done it more than once. Rondo did it twice in the same season.
Even with his recent struggles, Rondo is still tied for the NBA lead in triple-doubles with three and with Steve Nash for the league lead in assists per game (11.4).
While Chicago point guard Derrick Rose spurs his team to the top seed in the East and makes his case to be the NBA's Most Valuable Player, Rondo is struggling and his team is sliding down the standings.
The Celtics have 10 games remaining starting with the Pacers tonight. That's plenty of time for Rondo to work out his issues, whatever they may be.
When Rondo returns to forms, so will the Celtics.
When it comes to the Celtics, how much they play is almost as important as how they play. That's why the best part about the Celtics' win over the Indiana Pacers last night wasn't the effort. It was the lack of it expended by the Core Four in the fourth quarter.
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo were all spectators for the final period. Ray Allen was only member of the group who stepped on the parquet in the fourth, playing 4 minutes and 44 seconds. None of them played 30 minutes in the game -- Rondo logged 29:47.
That's been a rarity for the Celtics this season. They've taken the regular season far more seriously than they did in 2010, when, following a 23-5 start, they treated the rest of the season like one big shootaround. The challenge last season was warding off regular-season ennui. This year's it's combating fatigue while not ceding home-court advantage.
Pierce (34.8 minutes to 34), Garnett (31.7 to 29.9), Rondo (37.4 to 36.6) and Allen (36.1 to 35.2) are all playing more minutes this season than last. Coach Doc Rivers's hand has been forced by the upgrades in the Eastern Conference, countless injuries and a bench that has had more looks than Lady Gaga this season.
The Celtics had lost three of four before last night. Many would point to the absence of Kendrick Perkins and his trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder. For all their recent "struggles," the Green are 7-3 since the Perkins trade, discounting the loss to Denver when they played shorthanded without Perkins or the players he was traded for, Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green.
The common theme in the losses was poor shooting nights from the weary sine qua non quartet. Kevin Garnett went 5 for 19 against the Clippers. Ray Allen was 2 of 11 against the Sixers. Monday night's loss to the Nets featured a 1-of-10 from Rajon Rondo and a 2-of-10 from Paul Pierce. Unless the center is Bill Russell, the Celtics are not winning when that happens.
It's not difficult to draw a parallel between Rondo's recent slump and the minutes he's logged. In 55 games, Rondo, who has battled a balky ankle, tweaked hamstring and plantar fasciitis this season, has led the Celtics in minutes played 26 times and leads the team in average minutes per game. Delonte West's return last night is not worthy of a parade, but if there is to be one in June then West needs to give Rondo some rest.
It's just a fact of NBA life that they can't all play out as exquisitely as last night when the Pacers provided cooperation for the Celtics recuperation. The Celtics and Rivers won't always be able to choose rest and victory, especially now that they're locked in a fight for the first spot in the Eastern Conference with the Chicago Bulls.
The final 16 games will be a delicate balancing act for Rivers -- tapping into his players to get the most out of the regular season without taxing them for the playoff push ahead. The real goal here after all is the raising of Banner No. 18, not regular-season glory.
What is different about this season than last is that one might not be possible without the other. The rote response in the Hub of Hoops (royalties pending to the inimitable Kevin Paul Dupont) when debating the merits of regular-season success vs. rest is to err on the side of the inert. Why not? The Celtics were the fourth seed last year and were a few rebounds away from another title.
First, no one outside of the Green inner circle was predicting that run last year, so it's become revisionist history to cite it as a reason that regular-season rest at all costs is the route for this year's team. Second, the path to the Finals is simply tougher this year.
Last year, as the No. 4 seed, the Celtics faced the fifth-seeded Miami Heat, before LeBron James and Chris Bosh took their talents to South Beach. That team had Dwyane Wade and...well, that team had Dwyane Wade. Then it was two more one-man bands in Cleveland and Orlando.
The sixth-seeded team this year is currently the New York Knicks, a team that boast superstars Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony and venerable veteran point guard Chauncey Billups. That's if the Knicks even finish sixth, the upstart Philadelphia 76ers, a team that has played the Celtics tough this year, are nipping at their heels.
Realistically, the Celtics need to grind out a top two finish in the East to have the best chance of reaching the NBA Finals for the third time in four seasons. If they drop to third, they'll have to face the Knicks/Sixers in the first round, then probably play the Heat without home-court advantage in the second. If they win that series, their reward is probably playing the Chicago Bulls and ostensible league MVP Derrick Rose. Entering tonight, the rebuilt Bulls have the NBA's best home mark at 30-4.
If the senescent Celtics somehow survived the East, they would have to play the Spurs or the Lakers (sorry, Mark Cuban, but your team is built for the regular season only) without home court to take the title. It's simply asking too much, even of this incredibly accomplished group.
The Celtics aren't going to catch the Spurs for the NBA's best record, but finishing with a better record than their purple and gold protagonists is almost as important as a top-two finish in the East, if you believe a Finals rivalry rubber match is imminent. Entering play tonight, the Lakers (48-20) were a game back of the Celtics. Perk or no Perk, the Celtics beat LA last year with home court to their advantage.
Home court matters this time.
The road to the NBA Finals better go through Boston come playoff time or the Celtics could find themselves getting plenty of rest when they don't want it.
The final judgment on the trade of Kendrick Perkins won't be rendered until the days of wind chills and winter coats are a memory. Check back in June to see if the Legend of Perk grows or fades.
Today marks a week from when an audacious Danny Ainge packaged Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green (plus a top-10-protected first-round pick). Save for a shellshocked, shorthanded loss in Denver, the Celtics have not lost after losing Perkins, winning three of four, including last night's 115-103 slapdown of the Suns, a game in which all five starters, including Krstic (13 points, 4 rebounds), scored in double figures.
Hopefully by now cooler heads have prevailed among the parishioners of the parquet, most of whom went off the deep end, Sheen-style upon hearing of Perk's departure.
Their visceral reaction was based on a myth -- that Perkins torn ACL-caused absence cost the Celtics the NBA title last year. The story goes -- and with each passing month and fading memory the gospel grows -- that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum abused the undermanned and undersized Celtics on the boards in the decisive Game 7 in LA without Perkins's rugged presence to protect the rim. It remained the primary argument against the trade.
Even I bought into it initially.
In a weird way the greatest thing that ever happened to Perkins's career was missing Game 7 after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Game 6. As painful as it was for him to watch his team lose from the bench, it cemented his legacy as a Celtic because it created the Game 7 myth.
While Perkins certainly would have helped against the Lakers it is a tremendous oversimplification to attribute that disappointing defeat solely and exclusively to his unavailability. The Celtics built a 13-point lead without him. They held the Lakers to 32.5 percent shooting from the field without him. They possessed the lead with 6:29 to go without him.
Would Perkins's presence have prevented Ray Allen, who knocked knees with Ron Artest earlier in the series, from shooting 3 of 14, or stopped Paul Pierce from going 2 of 9 in the second half? We should ascribe the fact that Kevin Garnett, a player who once won four straight rebounding titles, finished the game with a career-playoff low three rebounds primarily to Perkins?
The truth is that if either A) Rasheed Wallace had not been wheezing through the second half like a chain-smoker forced to run a 5K or B) the Celtics had another warm-blooded, seven-foot body (or even Jermaine O'Neal) to sub in they would have won. 'Sheed gave the Celtics 11 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocked shots in 36 minutes before fouling out/succumbing to exhaustion. Perkins averaged 5.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in the six games he played in during the series. He never recorded a block.
Another myth is Bynum's role in Game 7. The Celtics were outrebounded 53-40 and the Lakers had 23 offensive rebounds, nine from Gasol, who finished with 19 points and 18 boards. But Bynum collected just 2 points and 6 rebounds in 19 minutes. Perkins was missing in action that night and so was he.
The second-leading rebounder for LA that evening was Kobe Bryant (15). Doubt Perk would have been guarding him.
The same circumstances that made Perkins look so good here when he was on the court -- playing with four All-Stars -- also made him look indispensable that night when he wasn't on it, and they didn't perform. With the Big Three misfiring, Perkins's absence and intangibles became all the more glaring.
This is not to discredit or diminish completely Perkins's contributions to the Celtics over the last three-plus seasons. He turned himself into a tremendous teammate/role player and an excellent defense player. His work ethic and toughness were above reproach. A self-made NBA man, he far exceeded my expectations as a player, and he is deserving of the four-year, $34.8 million contract the Thunder rewarded him with, a contract the Celtics couldn't afford to give him under the current CBA. He's exactly what Oklahoma City needed, and I wish Perk nothing but luck and slam dunks in OKC.
And, yes, it is a little disconcerting that the Celtics so willingly sacrificed the championship chemistry they had, their single biggest advantage over Miami's Millionaire Mercenaries, aka, the Heat.
But...the Celtics are winning and can win it all without Perk. For the same reasons, they won with him. Anyone who is playing with four All-Stars is going to have their strengths accentuated and their weaknesses diminished. In Perkins's case, playing with the Core Four made him look Moses Malone-esque at times as a defender and rebounder and disguised the fact that he was a limited and predictable offensive player and a below-average finisher.
In the case of Krstic, whom most assumed was the B.E.S. (Big European Stiff) tax for getting Green, playing with the Core Four has done the same. It has hidden his aversion to physical contract, made him appear to be a more proficient defensive player and offensive rebounder than he is and accentuated his obvious offensive skills. Krstic looks like a poor man's Bill Walton in Green, running the pick and roll, moving without the ball, displaying some nifty post-up moves and drilling 16-foot jumpers.
He already catches Rondo's bullet passes better than Perk ever did.
Is Krstic, averaging 11 points and 5 rebounds in three games in Green, this good of a center? Heck, no. But he's playing with a quartet of All-Stars, thus objects appear more talented than they are.
The same was true of Perkins.
If the Celtics had won Game 7 without Perk there wouldn't have been a near Egyptian-uprising about his trade. But they didn't, and so the Legend of Perk was born.
The Celtics already deconstructed a potential championship team by trading Perkins. Winning without him will deconstruct the myth.
Love him or hate him, what you have to admire about Lakers star Kobe Bryant is his killer instinct. It's a trait all truly great NBA players -- Russell, Bird, Magic, Jordan -- possess. It's the reason Kobe has five rings and counting and Sunday's guest of honor at the Garden, LeBron James, is still bereft of jewelry.
The NBA is an alpha male league and no one is more alpha than Bryant in what Magic Johnson used to refer to as "Winnin' Time." Bryant might not be Michael Jordan, but he's as close as it gets. If Bryant came first then MJ would be compared to him, not the other way around. That's why as a Celtics fan you should fear Bryant, even at age 32, more than you fear LeBron in his prime.
Bryant has shown he can beat the Celtics when it matters most. James has not. Bryant relishes the opportunity to take on the Big Three and the history and mystique of Boston basketball, James is wary of it.
Bryant's indomitable basketball will was on full display last night against the Celtics at TD Garden. Usually, in the NBA when one team is injury-depleted as the Celtics were, the other team tends to take them lightly and lolly-gag through the game. The Celtics' 109-96 win in Los Angeles on Jan. 30 and the general hysteria -- or what passes for hysteria in Southern California -- surrounding the Lakers blase season ensured that wouldn't happen.
But it was obvious that the more handicapped the Celtics became by injuries and foul trouble the more determined -- and perversely delighted -- Bryant became in contributing to and putting them out of their misery.
With Nate Robinson leaving the game in the first half with a bruised left knee the Celtics had to take the bubble wrap off rookie Avery Bradley after Von Wafer picked up his fourth and fifth personal fouls in a 56-second span late in the third quarter. You could see Bryant practically salivating at the chance to take advantage of the rookie.
The quarter, during which Bryant scored 12 points, ended with Rajon Rondo guarding Bryant because Ray Allen was on the bench saddled with four personal fouls as well. Rondo forced a traveling call on Kobe and drew an offensive foul. But Bryant had already gone into Black Mamba mode.
"Well, once he saw there was a chance to win, Kobe was going to be Kobe," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "I mean, I think we knew that a week ago, and he also knew that we had foul problems on the floor, and he was aggressive."
Bryant scored 20 of his 23 points after halftime and scored eight of the Lakers' final 10 points on the way to a 92-86 victory. He hit four of six shots in the fourth quarter, going turnaround jumper, jumper, driving lay-up and then the parting shot, a crossover, step-back jumper over Allen that brought back memories of the game-winner he hit last Jan. 31 at the Garden
It was simply Kobe being Kobe, which is scary.
"I wanted to be more aggressive in the first half, but I didn't want to force it too much," said Bryant, who has gained tolerance for his teammates over the years. "I had to keep my guys in the game a little bit. The start of the second half I just forced it because the game wasn't coming to me, so I took it."
He took it because in his mind it belonged to him, like every game does. James is always waiting for someone to give it to him -- a big contract, a better set of teammates, a championship ring. James isn't even the best closer on his own team. That title would go to Dwyane Wade, whose on-court temperament is closer to Bryant's.
Taking logos and uniforms out of it, you have to appreciate the sheer brilliance of Bryant, especially because who knows how much longer he will be able to play at this lofty level. In his -- is this even possible? --15th season, Bryant is not the uber-athlete he once was. That was obvious last night when he failed to convert an alley-oop layup that four years ago he would have slammed home.
Kobe has never been an endearing or uniting presence like Jordan was during his days. He has always seemed colder, less accessible, more aloof. Perhaps, Bryant will get his due at the All-Star game in Los Angeles. Maybe, it will be a hoops homage of sorts to the greatest player of his generation. Or perhaps, Kobe will share the fate of many great artists. His work won't be truly appreciated until he stops producing it.
Barring a debilitating injury, Bryant, who has scored 27,135 points and counting, is probably going to score 30,000 points in his career. That puts him in rarefied air with his Airness and other basketball royalty. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving (combined ABA and NBA point total) are the only players in the history of professional basketball to do so.
But what drives Bryant isn't joining Jordan in the 30,000-point club. It's matching him in NBA titles. It would be all the sweeter for Bryant if to do it he has to face the Celtics one more time. Just like us, he craves a rubber match of this storied rivalry in the NBA Finals.
"The Finals? Yeah, of course. It's great. This is one of the best atmospheres, if not the best atmosphere to play in in the league today. This arena, everything that they do. It's a challenging place to play, but it's a lot of fun."
It's not a fait accompli by any means, not with how well the NBA's unholy trinity is playing in South Beach, and the way the clockwork Spurs are clicking in San Antonio.
But if you're a pure basketball fan pray that last night was not the last time the Celtics see Bryant and the Lakers.
Because it's a killer matchup.
It's been more than seven months since the Celtics and Lakers staged a dramatic Game 7 of the NBA Finals at Staples Center. If you love basketball that's too long.
The rebounds and the championship banner went to the Lakers that sullen summer night. But Hollywood clamors for sequels, and while Sunday is not a replay of Game 7 it is far more important than your generic one of 82.
Call it postseason posturing. There is nothing the Celtics can do to change the past, but they can set the agenda for the future and extract a bit of revenge in the process.
Forget the Phoenix Suns, the Celtics' opponent tonight, and the Sacramento Kings, the Lakers' sacrificial lamb, those games are warm-up acts for Sunday. With all due respect to the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, these are the teams that make for the most compelling NBA Finals matchup.
We are extremely lucky that these teams are in position to write another chapter in their storied rivalry. Few thought that would be the case after Game 7. It looked like it was time to roll the credits on the Big Three/Doc Rivers era on Causeway Street.
Rivers, who got an ovation after he left the podium due to the presumption it was his final game as Celtics coach, said that night, "We're not going to be the same team next year."
But then Doc decided to return as Shamrock Shaman, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen followed suit, and the Celtics were back in business, with one very large addition in former Laker Shaquille O'Neal.
The acrimony between O'Neal and his former running mate, Kobe Bryant, has been well-documented. As has the Celtics' general disdain for Pau Gasol. But Boston doesn't need personal vendettas for motivation. Game 7 says it all. The Celtics led by 13 early in the second half and were still up three with 6:29 to go.
Rivers is fond of saying that the Celtics starting five has never lost a playoff series, and any player or coach who was in the tear-filled Celtics locker room after Game 7 will go to their grave believing the outcome would have been different with a healthy Kendrick Perkins.
It's easy to forget, but the Celtics returned to Los Angeles in control of the series, needing only to win once in SoCal to raise Banner No. 18. But Perkins tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Game 6. Gasol (nine offensive rebounds) played volleyball in Game 7 and the Lakers won it despite a putrid performance -- 32.5 percent shooting from the field and 67.6 percent from the foul line -- thanks to 53 rebounds.
Perkins is back sooner than expected from surgery to repair the ACL in his right knee, and had a near double-double last night in Portland (10 points, 9 rebounds) in his second game back. You can bet he plans to make his presence felt to Gasol and Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who has also returned from off-season right knee surgery that sidelined him for the first 24 games.
The lesson the Celtics learned from their loss to the Lakers is that you can't expect to skate through the regular season, flip a switch in the playoffs and go home champions without home court. It's obvious that the Celtics' aging core is putting much more emphasis on the regular season this year, as reflected by their Eastern Conference-best 35-10 mark.
The Lakers appear to be taking a page out of the Celtics' book from last season, approaching the regular season with a laissez-faire, Left Coast attitude. At least that's the hope in Los Angeles, where there is some concern that the Lakers are not aging gracefully.
Laker legend and league icon, Jerry West, aka, The Logo, recently called out the Lakers for a defensive decline and said he didn't think they would be good much longer. It's never wise to go against Mr. Clutch, who is also one of the shrewdest NBA talent evaluators to ever walk the Earth.
Still, I think the Lakers' "problems" are more the result of a championship hangover (looking at you Ron Artest) and regular-season ennui than a sudden decline.
Kobe and his crew have a 33-13 mark and are six games behind the Spurs for the best record in the West, but they had a stretch from late December to Jan. 2 where they lost four of six, including defeats to inferior opponents Milwaukee and Memphis. They also had a four-game losing streak from Nov. 26 to Dec. 1.
Then there is the fact that the Lakers are a combined 1-4 against fellow championships contenders, going 1-1 against the Bulls and losing to Miami, San Antonio and Dallas. Expect to get the Lakers 'A' game on Sunday.
Of greater concern to the Celtics than any Los Angeles angst is figuring out how to rebound the basketball against the Lakers.
The Celtics 71 offensive rebounds were an all-time Finals low for a seven-game series. Not much has changed on the boards since June. The Lakers are the second-best rebounding team in the league (44.3 per game), while the Celtics rank dead last (38.4).
Of course it's tough to rebound shots you're making. We'll find out just how right West was about the Lakers defense, since Boston leads the NBA in field goal percentage at 50.3 percent. In the past 20 seasons, nine teams have managed to shoot 50 percent or better from the floor for a season.
There are so many storylines and subplots to the latest edition of Celtics vs. Lakers. It's the rare NBA regular season game that feels like something more. Luckily, after Sunday, the teams meet again in Boston on Feb. 10.
Something tells me that game won't be the last time these two teams see each other this season.
LeBron's Leftovers straggle into Boston tonight to face the Celtics, and it's not a pretty sight.
For Cleveland, it's like returning to the scene of the crime. The last time they played here they still had LeBron -- and hope. The moment James decided to take his talents -- and sell his basketball soul -- to South Beach it all went south, period, for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who bring a dearth of talent and a 17-game losing streak to the parquet.
Cavaliers fans have borne witness to one of the worst stretches of basketball in recent NBA history. The Cavaliers have the NBA's worst record at 8-36. They've lost 21 consecutive road games, matching the team record set in 2003, the season before James arrived as their ersatz savior. They haven't won a basketball game in more than a month. Cleveland's last win was a 109-102 overtime victory over the Knicks, another outfit spurned by James, a week before Christmas.
Remember that defiant missive that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert fired off after James's nationally-televised dumping of Cleveland?
"I personally guarantee that the Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA Championship before the self-titled former 'king' wins one," Gilbert wrote. "You can take it to the bank." Oops. That bank has failed and there is no basketball bailout for Gilbert or the putrid Cavs.
But this isn't Gilbert's fault. No. It's not totally the self-absorbed James's either. He just wanted to win. The people most responsible for the carnage in Cleveland are your Boston Celtics. That's right the onus for the Cavaliers collapse belongs to Danny Ainge, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and the rest of the Celtics. They'll be playing what they wrought -- or more accurately, rot -- tonight.
If the Cavaliers, who had the NBA's best record last season at 61-21, had managed to conquer KG and Co., last spring instead of losing in six games, James may still be wearing an awful burgundy colored uniform tonight instead of forming the Heat's unholy trinity with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Say what you will about James, but he's not stupid. After losing to the Celtics in the second-round for the second-time in three seasons and seeing Cleveland's big midseason acquisition, Antawn Jamison, get eviscerated by Garnett, James didn't need his hangers-on to convince him to leave Cleveland. The writing was on the wall in the Eastern Conference.
The only way for him to beat the Celtics Big Three or now Formidable Four was to form a mega-group of his own. Miami happened to have the cap space, the in-place superstar in Wade and the glitterati James craved.
Tonight marks the first time Cleveland has returned to TD Garden since being eliminated in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on May 13. It turned out to be the last game James ever played in a Cleveland uniform. The Celtics effectively delivered the eulogy for the James Era in Cleveland. The shamrock was a stake driven right through the heart of the Cavaliers.
For all the talk about LeBron quitting against the Celtics in Games 5 and 6, again fueled by Gilbert, don't forget that the other two components of Cleveland's triumvirate melted like an ice cube in a glass of hot cocoa. In Game 5, when James was booed off the court by Cleveland fans, Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams combined for a total of 18 points.
In Game 6, while James had a near quadruple-double (27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists, 9 turnovers), in vainly trying to provide CPR to his lifeless team, Williams had 20 points in the first half and then one hoop after it, going scoreless in the fourth quarter. Jamison shot 2 of 10 and had just 5 points. The Cavaliers should have filled out a missing persons request for him.
After that game Anderson Varejao said of LeBron and the loss: "We can't just look at one player. We know he is the best player on this team and he won the MVP two years in a row. There is always going to be a lot of talk about him. But if we would win he wouldn't win by himself. It's the whole team."
And James surmised that the "whole team" Gilbert had put around him in Cleveland was good enough to win in the regular season, but not good enough to beat out Boston when it counted. The Cavaliers' one NBA Finals appearance with James came the season before Ainge united Pierce with Garnett and Allen.
So, the Celtics are as culpable as LeBron for the great regression in Cleveland. Unlike the last time the Cavaliers were this impotent, there is no LeBron James on the horizon to save them. The 2011 NBA Draft is without a clear-cut No. 1 pick or franchise player. Gilbert will be hard-pressed to fulfill his promise to the fans of Cleveland.
Perhaps if the Celtics are in a charitable mood they'll allow the Cavaliers to steal a victory tonight and save some face. The Celtics do have a habit of not getting up for the league's bottom-feeders. Plus, it's really the least they can do.
As for Cleveland's long-term plight, don't expect any sympathy from the Celtics or Celtics fans for the Cavaliers. If you recall the year before the Big Three were formed the Celtics limped through a 24-58 mark that included an 18-game losing streak. Pierce was all but asking out of Boston, as he wanted no part of the apparent rebuilding process even if it included Kevin Durant or Greg Oden.
But Boston's fortune changed and so did the fate of the franchise. Out of the rubble, the Big Three was born and so was James's discontent with being a Cavalier.
James dishonorably deserted Cleveland and left a mess behind, but it was the Celtics who opened the door.
It's not all Belichickian doom and gloom on the snow-covered Boston sports scene. In case you were still wallowing in Patriots Pain with your hoodie over your head and missed it, the second-most valuable athlete in Boston sports returned to action last night.
Welcome back, Kevin Garnett. Boy, are you a 7-foot sight for sore eyes after the Patriots' Bloody Sunday.
KG's return came just a day after the unexpected playoff send-off of Tom Brady and the Patriots. Once you readjusted your sporting senses to the fact the good guys were wearing green and white, it was pretty hard not to be downright giddy at the site of Garnett bounding up and down the parquet with alacrity and his trademark intensity in the Celtics' 109-104 victory over the Orlando Magic last night at TD Garden.
Garnett is good to go and so is the pursuit of Banner No. 18.
If Garnett's calf strain left him diminished, the Celtics' days as a title contender were numbered, to borrow a phrase from bigmouth Bart Scott. Instead, Garnett looked unaffected after missing nine games, playing 31 minutes and contributing 19 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals -- the last of which was a positively Havlicekian swipe with 15.9 seconds left that sealed the game.
With all due respect to the Patriots, the Celtics always were the outfit that started play last fall that was billed as championship-or-bust. They have the offense and the defense and they're a special team. What's clear is that the Celtics' run of success has legs as long as Garnett does. His strained calf in Detroit on Dec. 29 was a fender bender and not a four-car pileup.
Disaster averted, season saved.
"I said to somebody else that we look like a totally different team just with Kevin on the court," said Paul Pierce. "You can't replace what Kevin gives to a ball club. It doesn't always show up with his numbers but his presence and his feel for the game and everything he does for this team goes far beyond the numbers, and you see it tonight. We look like a team who is ready, who is energized, who is locked in, and you know that's the culture he's brought here since Day One. It's infectious. He raises everyone's level of play when he's on the court."
Garnett said the past couple of weeks were dark days for him (we know the feeling, Kevin).
However, the Celtics and coach Doc Rivers dealt well with Garnett's absence. The progeny of the parquet were without Garnett on the court for 19 days, and they managed not to lose any ground to the Miami Heat.
The Celtics went 6-3, sans Garnett, and after last night's win woke up this morning at 31-9, two games up on the South Florida front-runners and 3.5 ahead of the Bulls for homecourt in the Eastern Conference. When Garnett went down in Motown the Celtics were only a game up on the other three in Miami.
Home court is going to be crucial for the Celtics in the playoffs. The East is simply too deep and too tough for the Celtics to get away with the regular-season truancy they displayed last season and still end up back in the NBA Finals. That's why any extended absence for Garnett would have been damaging to the cause of keeping the Green on Causeway Street when the snow melts.
In the here and now, Garnett's return was not just an emotional lift, but a physical one as well, because size is a rare commodity for the injury-ravaged Celtics. Kendrick Perkins's return is still at least a few weeks away and the extended warranty on Jermaine O'Neal's knee is well past expiration. Rivers had no choice last night but to squeeze eight-plus minutes out of Luke Harangody at power forward.
Plus, KG gives the Celtics an edge. Garnett might be a bully sometimes, but he's our bully. Ask Jason Richardson, who must have felt like he ran into Vince Wilfork after Garnett leveled him on a first quarter screen that freed up Ray Allen for a long jumper.
Even better was that Garnett returned against the Magic and not your assorted Clevelands or Washingtons or New Jerseys. This is a team the Celtics could see in the playoffs -- again -- and last night's game felt like a postseason contest.
The extreme-makeover Magic defeated the Celtics on Christmas Day in Orlando in a game the Celtics led practically the whole way before the fourth quarter became bombs away. Boston was determined to close it out this time, taking over after the teams were tied at 104 with 51.1 seconds to go.
Rivers said Garnett's defensive presence and his vocal adrenaline were key down the stretch. It was defense, Garnett's forte, that made the difference for the Celtics, who found themselves in a nip and tuck affair despite shooting 60 percent from the floor, thanks to the Magic's 3-point marksmanship (11 of 27) and the dubiously quick whistle of Danny Crawford. The visitors shot 10 more free throws than the Celtics and had a 13-free throw advantage after three periods.
To borrow another phrase from a certain quotable Jets linebacker, the Magic's defense couldn't stop a nosebleed last night, as the Celtics put all five starters and Glen Davis in double figures.
Next up for Garnett and the Green is a date with Charlie Villanueva and the Detroit Pistons tomorrow. Should be interesting considering the history there, but the only c-word the Celtics are interested in is championship.
Oh, by the way, there will be at least one local sports team in action in a big game on Super Bowl Sunday. The Celtics have a rematch with the Magic at the Garden.
Since you no longer have a previous sports engagement that day, might as well join a championship chase in progress.
Kevin Garnett's gasp-inducing injury last night was a reminder of just how precarious this Celtics season really is. More than the Heat, Magic or Lakers, a Garnett injury is the biggest threat to the Celtics.
As Garnett winced in obvious pain, then went down to the court favoring his right knee following an innocuous pick-and-roll dunk against the Detroit Pistons, a championship chase suddenly looked like a lost cause. In a season of hobbled hoopsters, this was the one major injury the Celtics could not withstand. And everyone knew it.
Outside of Tom Brady, there is not a player in Boston sports who is more pivotal to their team's success than Garnett. He is indispensable and irreplaceable for the Celtics. Any discussion of bringing Banner No. 18 to Boston begins and ends with the health of No. 5.
No Garnett, no shot at redecorating the rafters of TD Garden.
Luckily, Garnett has not damaged his notorious right knee. The same balky knee that robbed the Celtics of a chance to defend their title in 2009, robbed Garnett of his explosiveness last season and forced coach Doc Rivers to feel like he was rolling the dice when Garnett passed the 30-minute mark in a game last season (he averaged 29.9 minutes per contest).
KG was due to have an MRI today, but the Celtics are saying it's a muscle injury and the afflicted area is his calf, not the knee on which the season hinges.
Update (4:35 p.m.): Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge told WEEI (850-AM) today that Garnett has a strained calf and estimated KG would be out two weeks. "It's nothing to do with his knee, which is great news," said Ainge."
Even if the Celtics have narrowly avoided the sum of all fears, any injury to Garnett hurts. The question must be asked: Can you build a team that counts on a healthy KG?
His return to form and health was the story of the season thus far. His playoff renaissance from last season had clearly carried into this season. He was rebounding better, spending more time in the post, dunking with ease -- he entered last night's game with a team-leading 34 flushes -- and was a joy to watch.
Garnett had 10 double-doubles last season in 69 games. He already has 14 this season in 30 contests. He is actually averaging more rebounds per game (9.5 to 9.2) than he did in the championship season of 2007-08. His shooting percentage of 53.9 percent is identical to that fateful first season of the Big Three.
It was enough to have visions of confetti raining down on the parquet in mid-June.
However, Garnett, who turns 35 in May, is now at a stage of his career where his health hangs over him and the team each season. He hasn't played a full season since 2005 and has missed significant time in each of the last two seasons.
As a preps-to-pros player he has more minutes and mileage on him than the average 34-year-old. We've already seen one of his preps-to-pros peers Jermaine O'Neal, whose default gait is a limp, as he fades away prematurely due to injuries.
The truth, and I don't mean Paul Pierce, is that we're already in bonus time with the Big Three. Last year in Los Angeles looked like the closing act, but the stars aligned over the summer for a curtain call.
Rivers hit the return key. Pierce opted out of his contract and put pen to an extension and with those two pieces in place, Allen re-upped. Yet, if Garnett goes down with or is diminished by a serious injury the summer reunion is all for naught.
The Celtics have to do everything possible to maximize their chances of winning this season because who knows if Rivers and Co., will be intact next season. That means homecourt in the playoffs.
Any missed time for Garnett will certainly curtail the Celtics in their charge for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The hated Heat, winners of 16 of their last 17 games, are right on the Celtics' heels for the top spot in the East, just a game back. And the extreme-makeover Magic are rolling now too.
The Celtics are 160-52 since 2007 in games that Garnett, Allen and Pierce played together, winning greater than 75 percent of their games (.754). When one of the Big Three is missing, they are 42-22 (.656).
The Celtics taught us last season that the regular season is somewhat irrelevant, but the reality is that an aging team would greatly benefit from homecourt advantage in the playoffs. The ending in LA might have been different with a healthy Kendrick Perkins, but the Celtics looked like a tired team in Games 6 and 7 after having to go through series with Cleveland, Orlando and the Lakers without homecourt.
This season they are 13-1 at TD Garden, with five of their six losses coming on the road. The good news for the Celtics is that of their 16 games in January, 10 of the first 13 are at home. The Green go on a Western swing -- Portland, Phoenix and the Lakers -- that starts Jan. 27 to end the month. Hopefully, Garnett is back by then.
The Celtics are fortunate to have a player the caliber of Glen Davis to fill in for Garnett, but it's simply not the same dynamic. Big Baby has taken charge -- and taken charges -- this season coming off the bench, but he lacks KG's length and shot-altering ability. Plus, his presence as a starter weakens the bench.
This rash of injuries will be a distant memory if Garnett and the gang are full-go come playoff-time in April.
If he is not and neither is his team then a season thus far defined by injuries will ultimately be undermined by them.
'Tis the season for giving again, so it's time to hand out some Christmas gifts to our local sports teams. We've made our list and we've checked it twice; we know who has been naughty (What's next, Brandon Spikes?) and who has been nice (You've done it again, Bill Belichick).
Where else would you start then with a team named the Red Sox?
1. Red Sox -- Christmas came early for Sox fans this month when in a span of four days Theo Epstein traded for San Diego slugger Adrian Gonzalez and then got must-have toy, outfielder Carl Crawford. Making it even better was that lefthander Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees, who ended up with a lump coal from the Hot Stove. So, what do you get for the team that seemingly has everything? How about another loss for the Yankees?
The best gift the Sox could get would be Andy Pettitte packing up his pinstripes for good and retiring. Pettitte, who was the Yankees No. 2 starter, is an important piece for the Pinstripes. So important that club president Randy Levine doesn't have dreams of sugarplums dancing through his head, he has Pettitte back in a Yankees uniform occupying his dreams.
The estimable lefty made the All-Star team last season at age 38 and went 11-3 with a 3.28 earned run average. He had an ERA under 3.00 when he went on the disabled list in July with a strained groin, an injury that forced him too miss two months of the season. With Lee in Philadelphia and Zack Greinke in Milwaukee, the Yankees are running out of options to ramp up their rotation.
Stocking Stuffer: A healthy Jacoby Ellsbury.
2. Celtics -- The Celtics are the only Boston sports team playing on Christmas Day, as they bring their 14-game win streak to Orlando to face the extreme-makeover Magic. Celtics coach Doc Rivers gets the gift of being with his family on Christmas Day. But strictly basketball speaking the perfect present for the Celtics would be a healthy center. Hopefully, that is in Shaq-a-claus's sack this season.
The Celtics haven't had any missed games due to injury from the Big Three. But they've already lost an entire season due to injuries -- 82 man games missed. Right now they're making due without Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo, and Delonte West.
But it's in the middle where they've been hurt the most -- literally. Center Jermaine O'Neal (sore left knee/flu) has missed 20 of 27 games. Shaq, who has missed a third of the season, is touch and go with a calf strain. The surprising Semih Erden, soldiering on despite a bad shoulder, is the healthiest center the Celtics have.
Stocking Stuffer: Continued good behavior from Glen Davis and Nate Robinson.
3. Patriots -- It has already been a season of joy for the Patriots. They are the scrooges of the NFL. They never give the ball up and they're always taking it away. Their nine turnovers this season and 29 turnovers forced are an integral part of their success. The only two games the Patriots have lost this year came when they lost the turnover tussle.
There are the obvious presents for the Pats -- a new hoodie for Belichick, a pair of scissors for Tom Brady, a GPS for maligned safety Brandon Meriweather. But what this team really needs for the playoff season is an improved pass rush.
Colleague Greg Bedard had an amazing stat, courtesy of Football Outsiders, last Sunday: just three of the Patriots' sacks have come on third down. The team had five sacks last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, but none on third down.
That explains why the Patriots have the worst third-down defense (49.2 percent conversion rate for opponents) in the league.
Stocking Stuffer: A couple of losses for the Raiders to bump up that 2011 first-round pick.
4. Bruins -- The spoked-Bs certainly showed some holiday spirit last night against the Atlanta Thrashers in a raucous and rough 4-1 win. Before that the appropriate gift would have been a pulse. But the Bruins showed some pluck in Thrashing Atlanta. So, the ideal gift now for the Bruins would be a return to form for center Marc Savard, who has three points in 10 games this season.
Savvy hasn't been the same since he suffered a concussion at the hands of Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke last March. He's dealt with post-concussion syndrome and depression, which delayed the start of his season. When he's right, Savard is one of the best playmaking pivots in the game and his presence makes the Bruins a deep and dangerous team. My hunch is Savard finding his game will allow Nathan Horton to reappear.
Stocking stuffer: One of these days the Bruins are going to get that premium puck-moving defenseman we hear so much about.
5. Revolution -- I know some of you don't consider soccer a major sport, but 'tis the season to be charitable. The Revolution, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001, actually got their gift back in October, when Robert and Jonathan Kraft agreed to open up the coffers. They instructed soccer operations to pursue a designated player, which allows teams to go over the salary cap to bring in star players like David Beckham with the Los Angeles Galaxy and French star Thierry Henry with the New York Red Bulls.
It's doubtful the Revolution will end up with a name that recognizable, but they should be able to procure an international talent or two -- MLS teams can sign two DPs and can trade/pay to get a third -- who can propel them back into contention. Previously, the Revolution had shied away from the DP, saying they were saving it for a player who would create scoring opportunities for the franchise off the pitch as well, i.e. Beckham.
Stocking Stuffer: The Revolution really need a soccer-specific home of their own.
It was a basket that didn't even count last night that told you all needed to know about how different these Celtics are from the team that limped -- literally and figuratively -- to a 50-32 record last season before putting it together in the playoffs to come within a couple of rebounds of another ring.
Kevin Garnett faced up Nuggets center/power forward Nene, looked at the rim, looked back at Nene, took a dribble, and blew right by the Brazilian big man as the whistle shrieked for a defensive three-second violation. Garnett, who always goaltends opponents shots when they launch after the whistle to send a message, had another deadball missive this time, effortlessly throwing down a one-handed jam. Just because he could.
The message was: I'm back. Now get the bleep out my way. Garnett's return to form from the knee surgery he underwent in 2009 to remove painful bone spurs is the biggest reason that the Celtics, who won their eighth straight last night, dispatching the Carmelo Anthony-free Denver Nuggets (get used to that phrase), are ready to take their talents back to the NBA Finals.
Last year, Garnett wouldn't have wasted what little lift he could muster on such a superfluous play. He couldn't afford to. It is impossible to overestimate the difference a healthy Garnett can make for the Celtics. It's like watching the Patriots this season with quarterback Tom Brady versus last season with Brady. You know it when you see it.
Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups, who played two seasons in Minnesota with Garnett and has remained close with him, knows what an unencumbered KG looks like. That's exactly what he saw last night, as Garnett had 17 points (on 8-of-9-shooting) and nine rebounds.
"It's the KG that I always knew," said Billups. "Obviously, he makes them so much better. He can affect the game in so many ways. Me personally, as that being my partner, I'm just happy to see him back healthy."
So is Garnett. That's obvious in his on-court demeanor, said Billups.
"Sure. Just his energy level," said Billups. "He's able to get to certain spots on the floor faster, and I can definitely notice it."
Even during the playoffs last year, when Garnett had a renaissance of sorts, most of his points were coming from face-up jumpers. His balky right knee resulted in failure to launch around the rim. Alley-oops were just beyond his reach. Players who would never dream of challenging KG were dunking on him with reckless abandon. Rebounds that had always belonged to him ended up in the hands of the opposition.
It was painful to watch, a power forward robbed of his power by a bad wheel. So it's a joy now to watch Garnett restored to his rightful place above the rim.
Last night, half of the eight shots he hit were either dunks or layups. In the first quarter, he scored on two plays he wouldn't have made last season. The first was a pick-and-roll layup on which Rondo lobbed him the ball and Garnett caught it in the air, landed and bounded right back up before a defender could stop him. Later in the quarter he ran the length of the court and threw down an alley-oop slam on the run.
Garnett admitted he's trying to be more aggressive and assertive this season on the offensive end, but the most notable sign of his re-found robustness is on the boards.
"Offensively, I don't really come into the games saying I need to score this many points," said Garnett. "I might have a goal as far as rebounding. Defensively is where it starts for me."
Pat Riley uttered it first and it's become a hardwood homily: No rebounds, no ring.
The Celtics were a woeful rebounding bunch last season, finishing second to last in the league (38.6 per game). They had a rebound differential of minus-1.5. The Celtics are still not a great rebounding team, but they've reversed their differential. Even with their best rebounder, Kendrick Perkins, on the shelf, Boston is averaging a rebound more per game and is a plus-1.6 in rebounding differential.
Look no further than KG. In his last six games, Garnett's rebounding column has looked like this: 9, 14, 17, 8, 10, 11.
Last season Garnett averaged 7.3 rebounds per game, his lowest total since he was a wide-eyed rookie straight out of Farragut Academy in 1995. This year Garnett is averaging 9.8 rebounds per game, which is more than he pulled down during his debut season on Causeway Street. We all know how that ended.
Rebounding has always been like breathing for Garnett, and last year he couldn't catch his breath. We're talking about a player who won four straight NBA rebounding titles from 2003 to 2007. The only other players to do that are Wilt Chamberlain (1959-63), Moses Malone (five straight seasons from 1980 to 1985), and the inimitable and utterly one-dimensional Dennis Rodman, who won seven straight rebounding crowns from 1991 to 1998.
Watching the Celtics now, it's clear that health -- not the Miami Heat -- is the opponent that can stop the progeny of the parquet from reaching their third NBA Finals in four seasons. Honestly, it's the only thing that has stopped them since Danny Ainge united Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. Garnett's knee forced them out of the playoffs in 2009 at the hands of the Magic, and the loss of Perkins in Game 6 of last year's NBA Finals allowed the Lakers to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
That's why Rajon Rondo's hamstring injury makes you a little nervous. You would hate to see the Celtics' floor leader forced to play compromised just as their emotional leader is reclaiming his game.
But if this is the Garnett that the Celtics are getting this season, then, to borrow his guttural celebration line -- anything is possible.
The Miami Heat aren't just facing the Celtics tonight at American Airlines Arena, they're playing against them every single time Pat Riley's fantasy basketball team takes the court. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have learned it's not easy trying to be the Green.
The Celtics made the hasty merger of three NBA superstars look so simple back in 2007-2008. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were imported to play with Paul Pierce and the Celtics were NBA elite faster than you could say 'rolling rally'. The learning curve for Boston's Big Three was a beeline to basketball eminence. They won their first game together by 20 points. They scored victories in 29 of their first 32 games, ended up with 66 wins and brought home Banner No. 17. They all knew their roles and were on a roll from the opening tip-off.
So, we've been conditioned that is how the process is supposed to go. Thus, the expectation -- no rather the demand -- that Miami's unholy hoops trinity of Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh mesh without any mess. That hasn't been the case. The Heat are 5-3 to start the season. The dream team has gotten a reality check. So far, all the Heat has in common with the original three-point planners of the Eastern Conference is the presence of Eddie House in uniform.
As the new-look Heat fumble around for chemistry, synergy and identity like a house guest trying to find an unfamiliar light switch, the appreciation for what Pierce, KG, Allen and their coach, Doc Rivers, were able to do three seasons ago grows. They made going from paper champion to actual champion look easy as 1-2-3.
Last year, before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge touched on just how special the maiden season of the Big Three was. Ainge, who played with the original Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, said he'd never seen a team fuse faster than those 2007-08 Celtics.
"I think that was unique. I've been in pro sports now for 30 years. I've never seen a team like that," said Ainge. "A team that was, just from Day One, just that in tune with one and another and coachable. That doesn't mean that they didn't have little personality conflicts behind the scenes here and there."
But the hiccups stayed hidden from the basketball viewing public. The Heat's trial and errors have been on display for all the world to see. They lost on opening night to the Celtics, looking like a pick-up basketball team full of strangers. They made New Orleans center Emeka Okafor look like Moses Malone in a loss to the Hornets. Miami blew a 22-point lead at home two nights ago to the Utah Jazz to send them to defeat for the third time this season.
The 2007-08 Celtics had won 20 games by the time they lost their third game, an 87-85 defeat to the Detroit Pistons. That was the famous contest when Tony Allen fell for a Chauncey Billups up-fake and sent Billups to the line with just a tenth of a second. The Celtics then ripped off a nine-game win streak to go 29-3, before losing again.
The Heat would have to win 24 straight games to match that start.
No one is writing off Miami, but it's been pretty obvious after eight games that the Heat has some flaws in their design. In short, the Heat is more a collection of talent than a coalition of it.
Bosh, who has endured the most bashing, is averaging just 5.9 rebounds per game and takes the power out of power forward. Miami is 29th in the NBA in offensive rebounds per game (8.4). Bosh is not a banger. He is a floor-stretching forward. Miami would have been better off with a true power forward like Carlos Boozer or Al Jefferson.
D-Wade has failed to really alter his game to accommodate his superfriends. He is currently third in the NBA in scoring at 26 points per game. He averaged 26.6 last season. His shots are down to 17.6 a game from 19.3 last year, but keep in mind that on the '07-08 Celtics no one averaged more than 13.9 shots per game, and the guy who did that was Garnett, the least offensively-accomplished of Boston's Big Three.
LeBron's decision to join the Heat looks like a demotion. He has taken his talents to South Beach to be a sidekick, instead of a co-star. James is only taking 15 shots per game, by far the lowest of his career, and scoring 20.9 points per game. His 8.6 assists per contest are the exact same average we witnessed last season in Cleveland, and he is up a full turnover per game from last season.
What does bode well for the Heat is it has adopted a defense-first mentality like Boston's Big Three did in their initial season together. Miami has turned out to be tougher to get past than the doorman at an Ocean Drive nightclub, as they're allowing the lowest field goal percentage in the NBA so far this season (41.6) and are tied with the Hornets for the fewest points allowed per game (90.1).
You figure that at some point Miami will figure things out, even if it means removing Erik Spoelstra from the equation. But what we've learned is that creating a contender isn't as easy as lumping three All-Stars into the same laundry and pressing play.
The Celtics only made it look that way.
With all due respect to the Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks, the 2010-11 Eastern Conference champion is going to be on the court at TD Garden tonight. In most hoops followers' minds that team is the Miami Heat. It is only in a few Green-partial precincts that the Celtics, the reigning Eastern Conference title holders, are regarded as favorites over the South Floridians.
Give the Heat the hype, the 24/7 ESPN adulation and the silly, self-serving Nike commercial. (Really, LeBron just let it go, man. You made the best decision for you, good for you. But that doesn't mean we have to endorse it or validate it for you.)
The Celtics have played the role of favorites before, and it's a little overrated. All the pressure tonight, and for most of the season in this instant rivalry (we'll call it the Sherman Douglas Cup) is on Miami. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh hatched their plan, remade the NBA in their image and now they have to deliver, just like Boston's Big Three did in 2008. Plus, let the record show that LeBron has never beaten the Celtics in any scenario that has been truly meaningful.
If we learned one thing about the Celtics last year it's that they play their best basketball when everybody is doubting them and not touting them. The talk at the start of last season was about the Celtics winning 70 games and striving to have the hardwood equivalent of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense. The progeny of the parquet were presumptive favorites in the East.
That didn't work out so well, as due to injuries, ennui, and lack of regular-season resolve -- as General Manager Danny Ainge put it -- the Celtics limped to a 50-32 regular-season record and the No. 4 seed in the East. Nearly everyone believed their championship run had run its course, and then the Celts flipped a switch in the playoffs, toppled the Cavaliers and the Magic in six games each, and ended up a few rebounds away from winning Banner No. 18.
Which brings us to this season and tonight's curtain-raiser against the Miami mercenaries. The biggest collateral damage in the Summer of LeBron outside of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New York Knicks was the Celtics' bandwagon. If LeBron doesn't elect to take his talents to South Beach to join Wade and Bosh then the intact-plus-Shaq Celtics are once again the presumptive favorites in the East with everyone anticipating an NBA Finals rematch against the Lakers.
Now, most of the hoops world views Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo as second-fiddle foils. That's perfect for Celtics coach Doc Rivers because Miami is a ready-made motivational touchstone for a team that has a tendency at times to rest on its one-ring résumé.
Rivers is already playing it up, and putting the heat on the Heat.
“All eyes will be on the game in Boston, but I think all eyes will really be on Miami," Rivers said yesterday. "We’re the other team that’s playing, and we’re just going to show up. But I’m sure everybody is there to see Miami."
You can already see Rivers telling his Big Three, "Everyone thinks you're too old, too slow, too injury-prone to compete with the Heat. Those rings you have are relics of the past."
You can picture him telling Rondo, "Everyone thinks you're the seventh-best player on the court tonight, a nice little sidekick."
You can picture him telling Shaquille O'Neal, "Everyone in Miami believes D-Wade won that title in 2006 on his own."
During a team film session he can show them where all the experts in the team publication picked Miami, and say no one believes in you. Wait, that's already been done.
Motivation can only go so far though. The Celtics created a monster when they sent James packing five months, and now they have to slay it.
From a purely basketball standpoint, the most compelling matchup in tonight's game is at power forward with Bosh vs. Garnett. The word out of Waltham all preseason was that KG's explosion was back. He could elevate again and thus elevate his game back to pre-knee surgery levels. We'll find out if that's true tonight against Bosh, who is one of only two players in the league to average more than 20 points and 10 rebounds in each of the last two seasons.
In three games, against the Celtics last season Bosh averaged 25.3 points and 11.7 rebounds per game while shooting 64.4 percent from the field. Garnett missed two of those games with a sore right knee. However, Bosh was precisely the type of athletic four that Garnett had trouble with last regular season when he did play.
One of the reasons that both Wade and LeBron ended up playing their final games last season at the Garden was that neither of them had any type of remotely legitimate big-man presence to challenge Garnett in those playoff series. That should not be the case now with Bosh. However, Bosh, whom Shaq once called the "RuPaul of NBA big men" has a reputation for being soft. One thing you can not be against Garnett is afraid.
Both Garnett and Bosh have something to prove on the parquet. I predict an early dust-up and double-technical.
The same is true for their teams. Miami wants to prove it's more than a paper champion. The Celtics want to prove they're still the team to beat in the East.
The first of the teams' four regular-season meetings should be fun and full of drama. But it's just the opening statement, one game out of 82. But it will give us some actual basketball talking points for Nov. 11. That's when the Heat and Celtics take their rivalry to South Beach.
We all used to laugh when M.L. Carr, a man most well-known for waving a white towel, talked about how the Celtics were championship-driven. Well, now they really are. In fact, they're the most championship-ready -- and compelling -- outfit in town.
While the Red Sox are enjoying a bridge year with little pizzazz, the Patriots are a team in transition girding for a likely lockout and the Bruins have what they hope ends up as a Stanley Cup contender with a potential franchise player in Tyler Seguin, the Celtics have all the pieces in place for another championship. Ready-made and ready to go.
There are no bridges, transitions, projections or qualifiers. Celtics Now isn't just a television program it's a description of the team's ethos.
For that we have Celtics ownership to thank. They ponied up to bring back coach Doc Rivers, keep the Big Three intact with new contracts for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and exceeded the luxury tax to add whatever is left of veteran big men Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal to a team that was six minutes away from its second NBA title in three seasons before it skipped away like so many of those rebounds in Staples Center.
"We lost in a seven-game series. We led by 13 points in that game, and we lost it fair and square," said Celtics owner and chief executive officer Wyc Grousbeck. "We lost it, but I'm not putting up with that any more if I can help it."
Yesterday, as he stood near mid-court of the Celtics' practice facility in Waltham, observing media day, Grousbeck recalled it was the eight-year anniversary of when he, his father, H. Irving, and Steve Pagliuca agreed to purchase the Celtics for a then-record $360 million.
Grousbeck and his group weren't afraid to spend big and dream big then, and they're not now either. They've gone seven million over the $71-million luxury tax threshold to put a winner on the parquet. They've done that in the face of similar collective bargaining uncertainty to what we've heard so much about down in Foxborough. Like the NFL, the NBA is facing a potential labor Armageddon in 2011.
"I would say since the day we got Kevin Garnett we've been all-in, pedal to the medal, and this [team] is another example of that," said Grousbeck.
The Celtics have a team of Shamrock Stars with KG, Pierce, Allen, Shaq and Rajon Rondo. They have reliable role players in Glen Davis, Nate Robinson and prodigal backup point guard Delonte West. They have a team they believe can compete with the Young Money crew of Miami -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh -- whom they open the season against on Oct. 26 at TD Garden.
Of course it was also a team that at times looked old and uninspired on its way to a 50-32 regular-season and a No. 4 seed in the playoffs, but no one is supposed to remember that. They also shouldn't recall Jermaine O'Neal's awful 9-for-44 performance against the Celtics in the playoffs last spring or Rondo getting to the rim at will against Shaq and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That's ancient history around HealthPoint.
It was all sunshine and smiles yesterday for the Green Team, even from the grouchy Garnett, whom general manager Danny Ainge said is in a much better place health-wise than he was the start of last season. Shaq lumbered around like everyone's best friend, even stopping to kiss Rondo on the cheek.
Center Kendrick Perkins, recovering from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, was in good spirits and walking around without a limp, two-plus months removed from surgery.
Everybody was looking at the world through Kelly green-colored glasses.
It would have been a much different story if coach Doc Rivers, who juggles egos like a circus performer does knives, hadn't decided to return to his basketball family. It seemed like Rivers was done coaching the Celtics when he gave an emotional postgame press conference at Staples Center on the night of June 17.
Media members actually clapped as he walked off the podium. But Rivers decided to come back on June 30 and seven days later both Pierce and Allen had agreed to return as well.
"I think having Doc come back is important," said Grousbeck. "He's the catalyst, he's the coach, he's done a great job. I think having Rajon in place meant a lot. I think having Rajon and KG in place is important, and then Paul and Ray both signed up. It was all in one busy week. Once the dominoes started falling and everybody started coming back we realized we were going to be a really good team."
The question is for how long?
The popular theory is the Celtics have a two-year window to win another title with Garnett, Allen, and the O'Neals signed for that time period. The only players signed beyond 2012 are Pierce, who has a four-year, $61 million extension, and Rondo, who is in the first season of the five-year, $55-million extension he inked last season.
But with Rivers's tenuous coaching situation, the Celtics are really going for broke this season because there is no guarantee Rivers agrees to come back a second time, especially after the insouciance and recalcitrance of this bunch nearly ran him off last season.
"I think Doc has made the point that he re-evaluates every single year," said Grousbeck.
To borrow a phrase from former Celtics coach Rick Pitino, it's all about the precious present with these Celtics.
Everyone from ownership on down is selling out for another title, and as Paul Pierce said via Twitter, this promises to be one wild ride.
New York is the city that never sleeps, but Boston is the city where the sports analysis, talk, and speculation never cease. There is rarely a shortage of topics to discuss. Here are five that have been on my mind of late.
1.There are two offensive players who have defined the essence and ethos of the Bill Belichick Patriots. One was Troy Brown, and the other is Kevin Faulk, now out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The laconic Louisiana native is as stand-up a guy as you'll find in an NFL locker room. During the 2007 season, with Spygate swirling, Faulk, a team captain that season, was one of the few players who consistently stood at his locker and faced the barrage of questions. When asked why he did it, he simply relayed he felt it was his job as a captain.
Faulk is one of those players for whom statistics simply don't do justice. An example, he scored just one touchdown during the point-a-palooza 2007 season. It was the game-winner in the Patriots' epic comeback against the Colts, as Faulk willed his way over the goal line for the winning points, squeezing between Colts defenders. It was quintessential Faulk. When Faulk retires there is a place in the Hall at Patriot Place with his name on it.
2. Just curious what all those David Ortiz detractors are saying now. At the start of play on May 9, the last day the Yankees came to the Fens, Ortiz was batting .178 and the discussion was about how long before the Sox gave Big Papi his walking papers. ESPN's estimable Buster Olney wrote: "I'd be stunned if Ortiz finishes the month on the Boston roster."
Now, here we are on Sept. 23, and Ortiz is tied for fifth in the American League in home runs (31), is on pace to drive in 100 runs and has a higher batting average, slugging percentage and OPS than the Yankees Mark Teixeira. To me it's a no-brainer for the Sox to pick up Ortiz's $12.5 million option, especially with Mike Lowell coming off the books. This team is already devoid of power and 30-homer sluggers don't grown on trees, at least not anymore. Ortiz is too proud to take a paycut to stay here. Ortiz is awful against lefties -- .205 and just two homers -- but do the Sox have a better option at DH? Compare Papi's numbers to Nationals slugger, Adam Dunn, long a Fenway front-office favorite. The on-base percentages (.362) are identical, so are the RBI totals (96). Dunn has hit .199 against lefties this year.
3. There has been considerable buzz building lately for Jayson Werth coming to Boston this winter. The hard-hitting and hirsute outfielder would fill the Sox' desperate need for a right-handed-hitting outfielder with pop. This year Werth ranks No. 16 in all of baseball in OPS-plus, which adjusts for a player's ballpark. He is ahead of Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, and Evan Longoria. By comparison, Matt Holliday, last year's hot free-agent outfielder, is eighth in OPS-plus.
The question is whether Werth is worth the cost? Werth has hired Scott Boras as his agent, and SI.com's Jon Heyman, who frequently quotes Boras, guessed that it will take five years and $90 million to sign Werth via free agency. Do you want to give that long a contract to a player who turns 32 in May, when you're only willing to go two years on Victor Martinez, who turns 32 in December?
Anyone who read the recent Sports Illustrated piece on Werth has to wonder how he'd fare in Boston. It's one thing to go from bench player to cult hero in Philly. It's another to arrive in baseball-obsessed Boston as a big-ticket acquisition. The Red Sox haven't exactly hit a lot of home runs in free agency during the Theo Epstein regime. Plus, Werth's home-road splits this season are a little alarming, although he posted a higher on-base percentage away from home in 2009 and boasted more home runs and a better slugging percentage on the road in 2008.
If you have to spend that type of money on an outfielder then the safer investment in my mind would have been Holliday, who turns 31 in January and has a longer track record of success.
4. I'm not sure what to make of the Marc Savard saga, except it just seems like a headache for the Bruins. To me there are three possible scenarios and none of them are really good for the B's, considering that Savard's seven-year, $28-million extension kicks in this season. One, is that the team and Savard are telling the truth and at some point during the summer his post-concussion syndrome symptoms unexpectedly returned. Two, is the grassy-noll theory that Savard is ticked off about his name being bandied about in trade rumors all summer long and is going on a wildcat strike. Three, that the Bruins knew Savard was damaged goods and were trying to peddle him off before it became obvious he wasn't going to be ready for the start of camp. Here's hoping Savard returns healthy and happy.
5. Got to love the Celtics' logic when it comes to losing to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Doc Rivers has said that his team has never been beaten in a playoff series with the entire starting five at the Green's disposal, a point Paul Pierce agreed with. Kevin Garnett was hors de hoops in the 2009 playoffs, and Kendrick Perkins torn ACL in Game 6 of this year's Finals let the Lakers play volleyball on the boards in Game 7. The problem is that when the Celtics beat the Lakers in 2008, LA was playing without center Andrew Bynum, who missed the entire playoffs that year with a dislocated left kneecap, a convenient fact that gets omitted over on Causeway Street. Here's hoping for a full-strength Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals rubber rematch this year.
It's time for a little summer vacation, but before I depart (figuratively but not literally) for my staycation, I thought I'd leave you with a few thoughts from what was an interesting and eventful last five days in the sports world.
1. Has there ever been a worse sports break-up than LeBron James and Cleveland? The phrase, "I'm taking my talents to..." is now part of our pop-culture lexicon. How LeBron announced his decision Thursday night was disgraceful, disingenuous, and downright crass. It was the equivalent of dumping a fiancé or fiancée on national television while simultaneously making out with your new amour. Talk about a jilted lover, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert lambasted the King and accused him of quitting. Mr. Gilbert: Check the box score from Game 6. LeBron took a game-high 21 shots, 12 in the first half. He had a triple-double (27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists) and nine turnovers. You're just as self-serving and self-centered as Gone Baby 'Bron. You two deserved each other.
For all the LeBron enablers in the NBA talking about how we should praise his decision because it was all about winning, read this excellent piece by Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in which it is quite clear that the Heat's willingness to accommodate LeBron's Boys and conversely Chicago's unwillingness played a role in the outcome.
In a weird way, the Hub is to blame for this hoops spectacle. Don't forget that the final time King James donned a Cavaliers uniform was on May 13 at TD Garden, as the Celtics ushered in the Summer of LeBron and ushered the Cavs out of the playoffs with a 94-85 victory. After losing twice to the Celtics in the playoffs in the last three seasons, LeBron felt the only way to beat the Big Three (plus Rondo) was to form a hoops holy trinity of his own with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
2. The Celtics' offseason plan doesn't look as good now as it did five days ago: So much for luck of the Irish. The carefully cultivated and meticulously executed offseason stratagem of the Celtics unraveled in four days. It was all aboard for Banner 18 last Wednesday after Danny Ainge lured Ray Allen back into the fold, and then things started to veer off track. On Thursday, the Celtics reached an agreement with/exhumed the remains of backup big man Jermaine O'Neal. Hours later, LeBron announced he was going to Miami. Then yesterday, reserve shooting guard Tony Allen moved to the Memphis beat.
Other than the Cavaliers and New York Knicks, the Celtics are the biggest losers in the LeBron Sweepstakes. If the Chosen One had chosen to go back to Cleveland or even signed with the Bulls, the Celtics still would have been regarded as the favorites in the East this year, and possibly next. Now, Miami has formed a triumvirate of its own that on paper trumps Boston's. The Celtics Big Three are in decline, Miami's is in its prime. Simple as that.
The caveat about the Heat is what kind of bench are they going to have? But you can ask the same question about the Celtics now that Tony Allen has defected and that O'Neal has been signed to replace the presumably retiring Rasheed Wallace. With very limited cap space, Ainge is going to have to get creative to replace TA. The Celtics signing Jermaine O'Neal is better than signing Shaquille O'Neal. That's about the only positive spin I can put on the move.
3. Jacoby Ellsbury is not getting a fair shake: Look, Ellsbury did himself no favors with his copious notes and detailed dissertation of the disconnect between himself and the Sox when it comes to the five broken ribs he ostensibly suffered in a collision with Adrian Beltre on April 11 in Kansas City. It helps no one to get into a he said-he said, but Ellsbury clearly felt he had to defend himself against the character assassination that has gone on since he got injured. It's tough to blame him.
While it's difficult to condone Ellsbury disappearing to Athletes' Performance Institute in Arizona for a month, he has a right under the collective bargaining agreement to seek outside medical care, and the Sox signed off on it. Who among us hasn't sought a second opinion when they felt they were not being listened to by a doctor?
Last Saturday marked 36 days since fellow Sox outfielder Jeremy Hermida suffered five fractured ribs in a collision with Beltre in Baltimore on June 4. At that same mark after his injury, Ellbury was making a rehab start in Pawtucket. No one seemed to mention that while throwing a parade for Hermida last week when he took full batting practice. This is not to diminish Hermida but to point out the two players seem to be on similar recovery paths.
After suffering his injury, Hermida actually played in a game, appearing against Cleveland five days later. He hasn't played since. That would indicate both the seriousness and the difficulty in recovery with this injury. Don't forget, Ellsbury, who said that in addition to the ribs he has a lattisimus dorsi strain and inflamed nerves, came back and played in minor-league rehab games and three major league games before the, according to him, previously undiagnosed broken back rib shut him down.
If Hermida returns to action and is able to play regularly, then the Ellsbury bashers have a point. Until then the jury is out.
4. Apologies to Nick Swisher and Tony Mazz: Before the season, I said that one of the reasons I wasn't as bullish on the Bronx Bombers as Mazz and others was that I thought the Yankees would miss Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui and that Swisher would not be able to duplicate his 2009 performance (29 home runs, 82 runs batted in, .371 on-base percentage). Swisher's pinstripe premiere year was a fluke.
I was wrong. Swisher has been better than last year and earned an All-Star nod by beating out fellow "Moneyball" protagonist Kevin Youklis in the MLB All-Star final vote. Swisher is a deserving All-Star (although not more deserving than Youkilis). He is batting .298 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI and a .377 OBP at the break. His .901 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) is higher than both Alex Rodriguez and Mark Texeira and tied with Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford.
5. Welcome reign for Spain: In a lot of ways Spain was kind of like the pre-2004 Red Sox of international soccer. They had a rich history, a ton of talented players, but they just couldn't win the Big One. That changed yesterday with the Spaniards' 1-0 win over the Netherlands in the World Cup final. Andres Iniesta's game-winner in the 116th minute was a magnificent strike following a great first touch to settle the bouncing ball. Think of a one-handed catch by Randy Moss. It was the type of magical technical skill the reigning European champions showcased all tournament long, and why La Roja deserved to return to Madrid as world champions. It also sent an important lesson to the rest of the world, including the US, that ball possession, pinpoint passing and pushing forward, not defensive shells and physical fouls, are rewarded.
As a high school junior LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated billed as the Chosen One. Tonight, it's his turn to choose one.
In a mere matter of hours we will have a long-awaited resolution -- mercifully -- to the much-anticipated free agent flirtation of LeBron James, the swan song to the Summer of LeBron.The repercussions will reverberate throughout the NBA like a Vuvuzela blown through a megaphone. Tonight's ESPN-televised infomercial is not just a moment of reckoning for LeBron and his legacy it is for the entire NBA, including your reunited Boston Celtics.
The celebration over coaxing Doc Rivers to coach another season, Paul Pierce to re-up at a below-market rate and Ray Allen to return will be short lived if James elects to form a Big Three of his own in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh ("CSI: Miami" would have to investigate, the idea is so criminal). Boston's Big Three is in decline, Miami's would be in their prime. Suddenly, the Celtics reopened championship window would go from wide open to merely ajar.
Such is the power of LeBron. The King is the kingmaker for a number of NBA outfits, especially those that have been plotting, planning, promising and paring payroll for this day since 'Bron-'Bron signed a three-year extension with the Cavaliers four years ago this month.
With a simple nod of acceptance LeBron can reinvigorate moribund Madison Square Garden, chose to continue the quixotic quest to bring Cleveland its first major sports championship since the days of the original LBJ, be the heir to the throne of his Airness in Chicago, or provide the master stroke of the blueprint for the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets.
Or he can take the surest path to a championship and alter the NBA as we know it by joining forces with Wade and Chris Bosh to form a superstar trio that may be unrivaled in the history of professional hoops.
The last option, which James is reportedly leaning toward and ready to celebrate, would confirm what some already suspected about James -- that he lacks the insatiable competitive drive and killer instinct of Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. That as great and unique as his individual talents are the two-time defending league MVP has neither the mental makeup nor the ability to carry a franchise on his shoulders to the promise land. That his unselfish play is both a reflection of trying to share the wealth and lessen the burden. That he's been plotting his escape from Cleveland for brighter lights and better teammates for years.
Can you imagine Jordan, thwarted by Bird and Isiah Thomas in the 1980s, suddenly deciding to joining forces with one of them or heading to Los Angeles to play with Magic Johnson? Never would have happened.
In fairness to James, the Cavaliers have tried and failed repeatedly and woefully to give James his Scottie Pippen, and even without a suitable sidekick he still carried Cleveland to the NBA Finals in 2007. There was a point in time, pre-Pau Gasol, when Kobe made it quite clear publicly that he thought the Lakers were a no-win situation and wanted out. His Kobeness tried to force a trade to the Bulls. Now, his legacy as a Laker has been cemented by back-to-back titles.
In a lot of ways I don't envy LeBron. This is not an easy decision because the Cavaliers don't look set up to win any time soon and even the power of LeBron can't lure a high-profile free agent to Cleveland, which is why Bosh is South Florida-bound. But if James leaves he'll be vilified in Cleveland and blamed for the collapse of the franchise. No one wants that burden, especially when making a decision that is so public.
For the latter LeBron has only himself to blame. He's made it that way, right down to deciding to send up the white smoke from Greenwich, Conn., via ESPN, like a high school recruit choosing a college by putting on a hat.
If you felt James was making a cold and calculated basketball decision driven only by winning then maybe it would be easier to embrace whatever decision he makes. But during the courting process King James has acted more like a jester. The whole Summer of LeBron has been a big choreographed joke.
He has talked about conferring with his "team," a group of self-serving sycophants and toadies. He has invited pitches that talk about how he can become a billionaire and an icon. He has eagerly turned us all into Witnesses of his inveterate need for fame, attention and adulation.
It's all been a reminder that the fate of franchises -- and an entire league -- is in the hands of a 25-year-old who has never attended a day of college, never lived outside of his native Ohio, and has been coddled and told he's special nearly all his life. Just another example that the sports world is about as far from the world we live in as Mars.
Everyone wants to know what LeBron is going to decide -- even my barber called me today looking for inside info. Who knows?
But what we do know is that no matter "The Decision" LeBron makes tonight, it will be a choice that will affect not just him but the entire NBA.
Don't do it Danny and Doc. Don't even consider it. I understand you are desperately seeking a back-up big man for the pursuit of Banner No. 18. But putting Shaq in a shamrock jersey would be a huge mistake, a miscue as massive as the man himself.In case you haven't heard, perhaps because you've tuned out the self-aggrandizing, never-ending soap opera of NBA free agency, there was an ESPN report yesterday that said the Celtics were among three teams expressing interest in Shaquille O'Neal. Celtics coach Doc Rivers told the Globe that the Celtics hadn't ruled out signing the certain Hall of Fame center, and the Celtics have also shown interest in Kwame Brown.
The Celtics are starting to realize that they don't have a lot of options when it comes to acquiring a big man to back up center Kendrick Perkins, who was scheduled to undergo surgery today to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and is expected to be out until December or January.
Brad Miller is likely out of the Celtics' price range, ditto for Brendan Haywood. There are few other appealing free agent options. At this point, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if Rasheed Wallace put off retirement and decided to lace'em up for another season. The paucity of post players is that acute in the NBA.
That leads us back to Shaq, who reportedly wants to play two more years and is willing to do so at mid-level money. The four-time NBA champion, two-time scoring champion, and former league MVP will be employed somewhere by someone, but it better not be in Boston by the Celtics
Sure, the 38-year-old Shaq is in the right age demographic for the Celtics, has an Irish-sounding last name and a host of entertaining self-given sobriquets. There is no doubt he would stage a memorable introductory press conference during which he would ask reporters if they've ever heard of the Black Irish, take a shot at Lakers star Kobe Bryant, and dub himself something silly like the "Big Leprechaun" or the "Big Shaqrock."
Everyone would laugh, but they wouldn't be laughing when an out-of-shape O'Neal prevented the Celtics from fast-breaking, demanded more touches, or chafed at coming off the bench after Perkins returned and he was displaced from the starting lineup, the only place he's known in his 18-year career. At this point, O'Neal's 12 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, his numbers in Cleveland last season, aren't worth the trouble.
What good is a role player who won't play his role? O'Neal has played in 1170 games in his career and come off the bench for nine of them. He started all 53 games for Cleveland last year before Glen "Big Baby" Davis injured Shaq's right thumb. O'Neal then started all 11 playoff games for the LeBrons. In his mind, he will always be a starter and a star. It's hard to believe Shaq would be content playing fifth banana on this team behind Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen (hopefully) and Rajon Rondo, but he's going to be content as a sixth man?
The only thing more prodigious than O'Neal is his ego, somewhat rightfully so since he's one of the five greatest centers of all-time. Adding another ego to the Celtics would be like trying to use the Exxon Valdez to cap the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Celtics nearly ran off Rivers with their in-fighting, ego struggles, and lack of discipline last season, so imagine how hard his job would be if suddenly it included placating Shaq. The over/under on the first Shaq-Rondo dust-up has to be two games.
People skills aside, adding O'Neal doesn't make sense from a purely basketball standpoint either. During the NBA Finals, Pierce laid out a formula for the Celtics success. It was to get stops, get the ball into Rondo's hands, and run.
"That's pretty much our formula," said Pierce, following Game 2. "We're a halfcourt defensive team, get stops, get the ball to Rondo on offense and let him make plays."
That's the paradox of the Celtics: even though they are an aging team they're actually at their best when they're pushing the pace. That's when Allen gets transition 3-pointers, Garnett gets easy hoops, Pierce can slash to the rim before the defense is set up or find a mismatch, and Rondo can be Rondo. Shaq and up-tempo go together like Lindsay Lohan and responsible, which is to say they don't.
It's not a coincidence that the Phoenix Suns, who didn't make the playoffs in 2009, shed Shaq and advanced to the Western Conference Finals last season. O'Neal actually had a stellar season in the Valley of the Sun, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while leading the league in field goal percentage (61 percent). But to be effective O'Neal needs time and touches, and he shackled the Suns' trademark transition game and point guard Steve Nash with his glacial pace.
If you thought Wallace was out of shape this season, then you don't want to watch O'Neal profusely perspire his way up the parquet. The Diesel is out of gas at this point in his career. He is strictly a half-court hoopster, which was obvious in the Celtics' second-round series with the Cavaliers. Former Cleveland coach Mike Brown did the Celtics a favor by playing Shaq more than Anderson Varejao, and he did a disservice to LeBron James, the most athletic player on the planet.
Brilliant ideas like surrounding LeBron with a player who clogged up the paint and limited his fast break opportunities are why the Cavaliers are going to have to tune in to ESPN tomorrow to find out if the Chosen One is choosing to stay in Cleveland.
The Celtics should choose to pass on Shaq. Yes, they badly need a big man, but they don't need the Big Whatever He Is because what he's not is a good fit.
Barring a contract calamity, Paul Pierce is staying in green and it's because it wasn't all about the green, refreshing in this summer of for-hire hoopsters.
Call Pierce the anti-LeBron. He's not trying to be a billionaire or a global icon. He's trying to win another ring and end his career as a Celtics legend, two accomplishments that don't come with a price tag or need a sycophant-filled sales pitch.
Pierce said many times this season that he wanted to finish his career as a Celtic, that etching his name in the storied history of professional basketball's most fabled franchise had a value to him. The Truth was telling us the truth. If he wasn't, he wouldn't be close to agreeing to what multiple reports have tabbed as a four-year, $61 million deal.
If you don't think that in the current frenzied free agent environment, where teams are acting like teenagers dropped off at the mall with carte blanche control of Mommy and Daddy's credit card, that Pierce, eligible for a four-year, $96 million extension from the Celtics, could get more than $15.25 million per year then you don't comprehend the current profligate state of the NBA.
Yesterday, Rudy Gay got a max contract from the Memphis Grizzlies, averaging $16.3 million a year. Rudy Gay, really. Darko Milicic, one of the league's all-time biggest flops and the poster child for over-hyped European prospects, received a four-year, $20 million deal from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Some guy named Amir Johnson got a five-year, $34 million contract from the Toronto Raptors, an obvious reward for averaging 6.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last season.
Make no mistake, in Patriots' parlance this would be a team-friendly deal, and it's a win-win one for Pierce and the Celtics.
Rather than rebuild, the Celtics want to run it back with a group that came thisclose to its second title in three seasons. The first domino was the return of coach Doc Rivers, but if Pierce left for greener pastures, then the Celtics' championship days were past tense. Now, just Ray Allen remains to commit to a comeback, and you have to like the chances of Allen returning now that Pierce is ostensibly back. However, anything can happen in NBA free agency, which has become like a middle school dance for millionaires with all the courting taking place.
Some questioned Pierce's motives and loyalty when he opted out of the final year of his contract, which would have paid him $21.5 million this season, but it was simply using leverage to obtain security. If Pierce, who turns 33 in October, played out his contract and the Celtics suddenly got elderly before our eyes, Danny Ainge would have blown up the Big Three faster than you can say "McHale" and Pierce's expiring contract would have become a key piece of the redesign. As much as ownership adores Pierce, Ainge would have convinced them it was time to start over -- without him.
Now, Pierce is protected in such a scenario and the Celtics get some luxury-tax relief with a smaller salary for 2010-11.
Look, there is risk on both sides with this contract. Pierce is foregoing further financial reward -- and possibly a fourth year -- to stay. The Celtics are giving a long-term deal to an aging star who, if he makes it to the fourth season, will turn 36 during it and has never inspired visions of the cover of Men's Health magazine.
Pierce is entering a stage of his career much like the other major No. 34 in town, David Ortiz, where he is going to have to rededicate himself to off-season conditioning and fitness to lessen his decline. Like the rest of the Celtics, it looked like he ran out of gas in the playoffs, and it was obvious in the Cleveland series that he was not the same player he had been in 2008.
Against Cleveland, Pierce struggled offensively while covering LeBron James, shooting just 35 percent from the floor in the series. It was Ray Allen, not Pierce, who was saddled with guarding Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals this time.
The days of Pierce performing on both ends against fellow superstars appear to be over.
He missed 11 games last season due to injury -- his knee was drained multiple times, he suffered a mid-foot sprain and a right thumb injury -- and had to have his minutes managed by Rivers. However, with the exception of the ill-fated 2006-07 season, when he missed 35 games with a stress reaction in his foot, Pierce has been a pretty durable player during his 12 seasons in Boston. If he plays in 80 games this year, Pierce will pass Bill Russell (963 games) for fourth-place all-time in games played, and would be just seven shy of Kevin McHale's third-place mark.
What is undoubtedly healthy is Pierce's desire to be a Celtic. Pierce is prepared to leave lucre on the table to leave a legacy. This contract is an opportunity for Pierce to cement his place in the pantheon of the parquet.
Sometime this year, Pierce will join John Havlicek (26,395 points) and Larry Bird (21,791) as the only players to total more than 20,000 points in a Boston uniform. Pierce, who has 19,899 points, is 1,892 points behind Bird for second place all-time. He probably won't pass Larry Legend this season, but certainly should go by him in the 2011-12 season. If he played out all four years of the proposed contract, Pierce would have an outside chance of chasing down Havlicek.
Those numbers clearly have more meaning to Pierce than the ones next to the dollar sign in his contract. If they didn't, Pierce would be looking to opt-out of a Celtics uniform for good.
Instead, he is opting to choose the Green over green.
Two weeks ago today Doc Rivers was done and so was this incarnation of the Celtics.
The Celtics' season ended in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in Los Angeles and it felt like the end of your favorite TV show.
Rivers sat at the podium postgame and teared up as he talked about his team. He referred to his part in Rajon Rondo's development in the past tense ("Just happy that I was a part of it.") and received applause when he exited the stage, literally and figuratively walking away from the Celtics.
Hollywood can't resist a remake and neither can Rivers. He is back on the bench, the Big Three will likely stay intact and the Celtics saga gets extended for another season. Summer is usually full of television reruns, but this is one Celtics fans will be glad to watch.
"Well, I'm just glad the decision is made and over," said Rivers on a video clip aired on WBZ-TV's newscast last night. "A lot of soul-searching with the family, and you know we want to go after this one more time. We got Kevin [Garnett] and Ray [Allen] and Paul [Pierce] all hopefully coming back, why not? Let's see if we can do it one more time."
Credit executive director of basketball operations/general manager Danny Ainge for this unexpected repeat. Of all the shrewd moves that Ainge has made during his tenure as Celtics overseer, coaxing Rivers to return ranks right at the top with trading for Garnett and Allen. Ainge understood that even if he brought back the same cast of players, convincing Allen to return at a reduced rate and hammering out a new contract for Pierce, the Celtics would still be starting over without Rivers.
Any steps forward without him were going to be steps backward.
Even though he still had a year on his contract, Rivers, who appeared poised to spend a year away from the game as a doting dad, was the most important free agent for the Celtics this off-season. So, while the rest of the league was planning pitches for players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, Ainge was courting his man, Rivers.
Who else could come in and immediately be able to gain this veteran team's trust and balance the powerful personalities that play on the parquet? Who could placate Paul Pierce, rein in Rondo, reassure Ray Allen and convince KG? Outside of Ainge himself and Phil Jackson (Red Auerbach would rise from the grave before Jackson would ever be allowed to coach this team), only Doc.
Rivers and the Celtics are the perfect match of coach and team. The Shamrock Shaman is the ideal fit for this resilient, remarkable, prideful and petulant group of players. That was obvious during the playoffs, when Rivers pushed all the right buttons to get a team that had woefully underachieved during the regular season to come within a few rebounds of winning its second NBA title in three seasons.
The most obvious benefit of Rivers's return is that it puts pressure on both Pierce and Ray Allen, the team's two highest profile free agents, to come back as well.
The 48-year-old Rivers and the 32-year-old Pierce have the same birthday -- Oct. 13 -- and they better be celebrating it together next season.
You can't be calling your coach and begging him to come back -- to choose you over his family -- and then leave for a few extra bucks or that extra year on a contract. That's disingenuous, which is something that neither Pierce nor Allen are.
Pierce even went on record before the Finals and said Rivers was the last coach he wanted to play for in his career.
"This is the [only] coach that I ever want to play for again, so he's definitely taken my career to the next level," said Pierce. "You got to put him up there with the top five coaches in the league, you got to say Phil [Jackson], Gregg Popovich, and then I put Doc right up there with them."
Rivers took a lot of bullets for this bunch this year. He maintained all year in the face of withering criticism of his team from frustrated fans and media that watched them stumble against fellow contenders and lose too many games to bottom-feeders that they would get it right when it really counted. He never stopped defending or believing in his players -- even when they were driving him to the brink of exasperation.
It's time for those players to repay the favor by following his lead, sacrificing some of their personal preferences, and returning to the Celtics. You can bet that Rivers, who has four children, didn't sacrifice the collegiate senior years of son Jeremiah, a basketball player at Indiana University; daughter Callie, a volleyball player at Florida; and the high school senior year of Austin, one of the nation's top prep hoopsters, to coach a new Celtics ensemble.
"Getting so close this year is probably going to lead us all back together," Rivers said, courtesy of WBZ-TV, to reporters in San Antonio, where he was watching Austin play for the US team at the FIBA Americas U-18 Championships.
Let's hope Rivers is right.
We all know how quickly situations can change.
A fortnight ago, it was a foregone conclusion that Rivers's time with the Celtics had run its course and so had the Celtics' championship contention.
Now, both are to be continued...
We're five days removed from their loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals and the speculation about the Celtics future is swirling rapidly, like a house fan in a heat wave.
Will coach Doc Rivers be back? Is Rasheed Wallace really retiring? Is Ray Allen returning? What will Paul Pierce do about his opt-out?
What is certain among all the uncertainty is no matter the coach and the composition of the Celtics next season, this team's success is now tied to Rajon Rondo's. That major change has already transpired.
Two years ago when the Celtics won Banner No. 17, Rondo was an unproven point guard charged with getting the ball to the Big Three, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and getting out of the way. Now, he is an All-Star point guard and it is the Big Three that must get the ball to him and stand back a bit.
That is a tricky transition game that is crucial for the future of the Celtics.
It's hard to dispute that the Promethean point guard was the Celtics' best all-around player through the two-month playoff run. In 24 postseason games, the 24-year-old averaged 15.8 points, 9.3 assists and 5.6 rebounds, while shooting 46 percent from the field. The numbers never tell the full story with Rondo ... well, with the exception of his triple-doubles and his abhorrent free throw shooting.
Rondo put up respectable stats in the NBA Finals -- 13.6 points, 7.6 assists and 6.3 rebounds -- while being guarded by the best player on the planet, Kobe Bryant. But it was interesting that when push came to shove in the closing quarter of Game 7 and the Celtics' season was on the line, the offense reverted.
It wasn't running through Rondo. It was going through Pierce and a struggling Allen.
There was a moment late in the game when Rondo's rise became quite evident, more of a mandate than his $55 million extension, Sports Illustrated cover or matchups with Kobe and LeBron. Allen missed a 3-pointer and Rondo grabbed the rebound, stepped behind the 3-point line and drilled a trey with 16.2 seconds remaining to trim the Lakers' lead to 81-79. That's the type of last-gasp shot that is usually reserved for a team's best player and Rondo took it without hesitation.
It was a statement shot by Rondo.
The Big Three understand what is happening. Pierce made a statement after the Celtics won Game 2 to hand the Lakers their first and only home loss of the playoffs that was profound. That game is remembered for Allen's 32 points and NBA Finals record eight 3-pointers, but Rondo had a triple-double (19 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) and 10 fourth-quarter points.
"That's the key for us -- if we can get stops and we can get Rondo out in transition, that's big for us," said Pierce, standing on a chair in the corner of the cramped visitors' locker room. "He did everything tonight -- he rebounded, passed, controlled the tempo. That's how we got to play. Let him get the ball in his hands and let him make things happen."
Let him get the ball. Let him make things happen. Let him go.
At times, that Pierce proclamation felt like lip service, though.
The Celtics' greatest strength, balance, was also an anchor that weighed them down. With so many options on offense, including arguably the greatest pure scorer in franchise history in Pierce, it wasn't always clear where the Celtics should be going on crucial possessions.
Never was that more evident than the final possession of the first half of Game 5, when Pierce, thinking Rondo was ignoring him, waved off Rondo in disgust and pulled a walk-off at the precise moment Rondo tried to give him the ball. The play was an awkward and public example of the team's evolution to a more Rondo-centric one and some of the resistance that change faces.
Regardless of where you think Rondo stands on the pecking order of NBA points guards -- I think he's third behind Chris Paul and Deron Williams because Steve Nash can't defend and Derrick Rose isn't really a point guard, more like a mini-Dwyane Wade -- he is a great facilitator and creator. But you can only facilitate and create with the ball in your hands and the trust of your teammates.
Pierce is the player who will have to adapt the most to Rondo's role change, on and off the court. He has been the Celtics' savior for more than a decade and the automatic go-to guy. Garnett and Allen often get their offense off feeds from Rondo, alley-oops to Garnett and pinpoint passes for Allen off picks. But Pierce is still a player whose offense is best initiated when he has the ball and room to work.
There should be a realization that Rondo is the only way to extend this team's run. The ageless Allen tired out covering Kobe and averaged 14.6 points while shooting only 36.7 percent from the field. Two years ago, he averaged 20.3 per game against LA and shot 51 percent from the field.
Pierce learned facing LeBron in the second round that he can no longer expend himself at both ends and produce like he did two years ago. KG proved in the Finals his career is far from over, but also that the phase of his career where he can dominate on both ends night in and night out is probably over.
Confirmation that Rondo has arrived as a face of the franchise was there for all to see during the NBA Finals. On a giant green banner on TD Garden that faced 93 southbound were Garnett, Pierce, Allen, and ... Rondo.
Rondo forced the expansion of the Big Three to the Core Four, but the truth is Rondo is now The One.
We just can't escape LA these days. The fate and fortunes of our traditional Big Four pro sports franchises -- the Celtics, the Red Sox, the Patriots and the Bruins -- are intertwined for better or worse with Los Angeles.
New York will always be Boston's chief rival sports city, but LA has become a noteworthy nemesis, a sunny, superficial antagonist that we love to beat and resent.
There couldn't be two more different cities than staid, historic, and compact Boston and capricious, trendy and sprawling Los Angeles. Yet it seems like everywhere you turn there is some Boston- LA link hovering above the sports scene like LA's infamous smog.
Let's start with the obvious LA story. The Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers just concluded a seven-game basketball battle royal to crown an NBA champion, meeting in the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons. The Lakers outlasted the Celtics to win their 16th championship. Fittingly, dead downtown Los Angeles could be the final burial ground for the Big Three era and the Celtics coaching career of Doc Rivers.
The two storied franchises have accounted for 33 of the NBA's 64 championships, with the Green, who beat LA two years ago for Banner No. 17, holding the slimmest of leads. It would be nothing short of a calamity if the Lakers, who are holding their championship parade today, tied or surpassed the Celtics as the most decorated team in professional hoops history.
Luckily, it can't legitimately happen. The "Los Angeles Lakers" claim of 16 championships rings a little hollow when in their own arena they hang prominent purple and gold banners for each of the LA championships and cram the five titles won in Minneapolis, before LA seduced the Lakers west for the 1960-61 season, with the game's first superstar, George Mikan, on to one measly flag marked "M.P.L.S"
The scoreboard should read Celtics: 17, Los Angeles Lakers: 11.
A Boston sports team did manage to defeat one of LA's beloved teams in a series, replete with "Beat LA" chants. The Red Sox just swept Manny Ramirez and the Dodgers out of Fenway, with nary a word uttered by the mercurial, peculiar and polarizing former Sox slugger, who went 5 for 12 with a home run and one run batted in during his letdown of a return to Fenway.
Manny being Manny has given way to Mannywood. The desperate for a dollar Dodgers have done a great job of marketing Manny's misfit -- and occasionally misanthropic -- personality. This is the final year of Ramirez's contract with the Dodgers and he and the team appear headed for a divorce. That's not a word that Dodgers fans are fond of, as there is prevalent fear in LA that the sticky divorce proceedings between team owner and former Boston real estate magnate Frank McCourt and his wife, Jamie, could leave the team financially hamstrung and unable to add the pieces it needs to reach the World Series for the first time since 1988.
Speaking of separation anxiety, that's what Patriots' fans are experiencing when it comes to their bi-coastal franchise quarterback, Tom Brady. Los Angeles may no longer have a pro football team (according to the NCAA they had one at USC under Pete Carroll), but they do have New England sports' most revered and recognized star.
Tom Terrific has generated some concern among the Foxborough Faithful by spending the majority of his off-season in the Los Angeles-area. Brady's eldest son, Jack, lives in La-La Land with his mother and the QB's former girlfriend, actress Bridget Moynahan. The canonized quarterback is building a home with his wife, supermodel Gisele Bündchen, in the posh Brentwood section of LA, and he was seen yucking it up with Lakers star Kobe Bryant after Game 3 of the Finals.
There have been as many photos of him hanging out at the UCLA spring game with David Beckham as there have been participating in Patriots off-season practices. And the purported "growing disconnect" between Brady, whose contract is up after this season, and the team is both financial and geographical. Brady isn't willing to take a hometown discount this time, at least not if the hometown is here.
LA stole the Dodgers and the Lakers, they won't hesitate to take the greatest football player in New England sports history. Brady could be quarterbacking the Los Angeles Jaguars in 2012.
It's not all bad from a Boston perspective when it comes to the City of Angels. LA could be about to deliver a savior to the most forlorn of Boston's Big Four, the Bruins. The NHL Entry Draft will be held Friday and Saturday in ... Los Angeles. The pick-a-palooza is at Staples Center, so the scene of the Celtics' demise could be the locale of the Bruins' resurrection.
Anybody who has been keeping up with the Bruins knows that the Black and Gold have the No. 2 pick in this draft and are assured of obtaining one of what the ice hockey intelligentsia have promised us are two genuine franchise forwards in winger Taylor Hall and center Tyler Seguin.
The last time the Bruins successfully drafted a face-of-the-franchise player, Los Angeles was involved. The Spoked-B's swapped goalie Ron Grahame to the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 9, 1978 for a 1979 first-round pick. That pick ended up being used to select a young defenseman by the name of Ray Bourque. Thanks, LA.
See, it's not all bad with Los Angeles, although you do have to question a place where Miley Cyrus is a success. LA has the ultimate sports bar for the Boston sports diaspora, Sonny McLean's. It's delivered us Bourque and produced Paul Pierce, Willie McGinest, Fred Lynn and newly minted Patriots Hall of Famer Sam "Bam" Cunningham.
In return, we gave them Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Fair deal.
As Rodney King famously said while imploring an end to the violent 1992 LA riots, "Can't we all just get along?"
Boston and LA sports fans don't have a choice.
LOS ANGELES -- There have been a lot of classic NBA Finals games played between the Celtics and Lakers. Last night wasn't one of them.
"Thank you Lakers and Celtics for another classic," NBA commissioner David Stern said in the post-game coronation following the Lakers' 83-79 Game 7 victory.
You and I have a different definition of classic, Mr. Commissioner. This game was U-G-L-Y from the start with the Celtics and Lakers staggering to the Finals finish line. Neither team had broken the 60-point barrier with 9:00 left in the fourth quarter. However, for the Lakers this one resembles Scarlett Johansson in pulchritude today. For the Celtics it's an unsightly setback.
"Obviously, it wasn't the prettiest game as far as shooting the ball and stuff like that," said Pau Gasol, who finished with a manly 19 points and 18 rebounds. "But we fought extremely hard. ...I think 53 rebounds, 23 offensive rebounds just tells you how much this team fought to be able to become champions."
Game 7 was tense, tight and intense but not anything to archive in Springfield for future generations to enjoy. The Finals deserved a better ending and so did these Celtics, who were a joy to watch in the postseason, repenting all their sins of the regular season.
That's what makes it hurt even more this morning if you're a Celtics fan. It was right there for the taking. It should have been the Celtics on that stage celebrating their second title in three seasons and passing around the Larry O'Brien trophy. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers came out so tight it looked like somebody put botox in their Gatorade, and LA tried its best to choke, gag and cough up the title on their own court, except the Celtics wouldn't -- or couldn't -- take it.
There was no Grady Little moment, no David Tyree play, no Bruins-esque collapse for the Celtics, just a game that got away gradually.
The Green couldn't hold a 13-point second-half lead and after shooting 44 percent in the first half they shot 37.8 percent the rest of the way. This was an eminently winnable game for Boston, and that's something that's going to haunt the Celtics for the rest of the summer.
"...Tonight was definitely a lost opportunity," said Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who had 14 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds. "We had a big lead, even in the second half but they made a run and we couldn't stop it."
The Lakers deserve credit for holding the Celtics to 67 points in Game 6 and 79 in Game 7, but their offense in the finale was offensive.
The ugly truth is neither team really deserved to win this game with its play. Can we have a do-over? The Lakers "won" while shooting a ghastly 32.5 percent from the floor. Bryant, who had 23 points and 15 rebounds, was 6 of 24, airmailed passes like JaMarcus Russell and generally booted the ball around like he was David Beckham.
In the first quarter, Kobe launched a shot that hit the side of the backboard and an airball 3-pointer while falling out of bounds by the Lakers' bench. It was not the stuff of legends for the Finals MVP, who finally admitted that his whole cool detachment persona during the playoffs was just a front.
At the half, Kobe (3 of 14) and Gasol (3 of 12) were a combined 6 of 26. The Lakers as a team shot 26.5 percent, but only trailed by six (40-34).
"Kobe didn't beat us. It was the rebounding," said Glen "Big Baby" Davis.
Without the services of center Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics were decimated on the boards, as for the seventh game the team that won the rebound race won the game and ultimately the series.
The Lakers best offense was to simply throw the ball up off the rim and then retrieve the carom. They outrebounded the Celtics, 53-32. The biggest play of the game was Gasol taking a rebound away from Rondo with the Celtics trailing by three (79-76), forcing them to foul Bryant, who canned the free throws with 25.7 seconds left.
Ah, yes, free throws. Kobe and Co., were bailed out by Joey Crawford, Dan Crawford and Scott Foster. After three quarters the free throw discrepancy was five -- 16 for the Lakers and 11 for the Celtics. The final free throw differential was 37-17 for the Lakers. LA scored 16 of its 30 fourth quarter points from the charity stripe and that's with five misses.
Another sign of LA's nervous, jittery play was their 67.6 percent free throw percentage.
If this truly was the end for the Big Three -- Ray Allen is a free agent -- and/or coach Doc Rivers it was an unfortunate ending to a brief but brilliant period in Celtics history. These guys deserved to go out champions. As Rivers pointed out after the game, the Celtics' starting lineup from the 2008 championship in tact is still undefeated in the playoffs.
Rivers certainly sounded like a man who was ready to step away, and he let it be known after the game that Rasheed Wallace, who gave a professional accounting of himself with 11 points and 8 rebounds in 36 oxygen-starved minutes, planned to hang it up.
The Lakers will be hanging up another banner in Staples Center. Officially the championship chase is 17-16, Boston.
Sorry, Lakers, you can't claim 16 world titles when in your own arena you only hang banners for the "Los Angeles Lakers" titles and cram the five crowns won in Minneapolis on one banner. No disrespect to Chick Hearn, but it's disgraceful that he has a retired jersey hanging in Staples Center and Hall of Fame players George Mikan and Clyde Lovellette have their names on a banner shared with four others.
There is some irony in the fact that the Los Angeles Lakers, who play in the most superficial and aesthetic-obsessed city in America, ended up winning the title not with style but with substance.
Just don't call it a classic performance.
LOS ANGELES -- The good folks of this traffic-choked city know a little something about traveling a long and difficult road to reach a desired destination, a trait they share with the Celtics.
It seems only fitting that the Celtics' unpredictable, arduous, and pothole-filled path to another championship ends in this automotive maze. Win or lose in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, it's Exit 24 for the Celtics, who take the court for their 24th playoff game tonight.
It's been an up-and-down ride for the progeny of the parquet, from the 23-5 start to four months of .500 basketball to a postseason renaissance; from boasts of a Chicago Bulls-like 70-win regular-season to the expectation of a second-round playoff exit to the anticipation of a second NBA title in three seasons; from a healthy start to an injury-ravaged in-between to a denouement down their starting center.
The embarrassing loss of Game 6 and the painful loss of center Kendrick Perkins (torn medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee) in that contest simply constitute the latest set of roadblocks.
The Celtics have traversed through it all for a shot at a championship, an accomplishment in itself. However, if coach Doc Rivers and his resilient team manage to take the title tonight on the Lakers' home floor, this championship will be a greater accomplishment than the one in 2008.
It would be an injustice to say that it wasn't hard for that team two years ago to win a title. Winning a championship is never easy, but the degree of difficulty for the guys in the green jerseys this season has been commensurate to a quadruple toe loop in figure skating.
They limped to the fourth seed in the East with 50 wins, haven't had home court advantage in any series outside of the first round, have defeated, in succession, superstars Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard, and have played the teams with the three best records in the NBA (Cleveland, Orlando, and Los Angeles).
For an encore, they have to beat LA and Michael Jordan clone Kobe Bryant on their court in sports' most pressure-packed crucible -- Game 7. If the Celtics pull this off tonight, they should give the team two championship trophies.
"It would be a great accomplishment," said Paul Pierce. "Any time you get a chance to win a championship it's a great accomplishment. I guess you could say especially with the things we've been through with the injuries, subpar season in the regular season it would mean a whole lot to us.
"But you know we never felt like we were an underdog coming into this. We felt like we were a championship team before the season started. It was just that the season didn't go particularly the way we wanted it to go, but at the end of the day we always felt like we were a championship caliber team."
Pierce is correct. The proper context is important. We're not talking about the 1967 Red Sox or the 2001 Patriots here, but the simple truth is that by the time the playoffs rolled around the Celtics were the only ones who still thought this day would come.
This still would rate as one of the more unforeseen championships in recent Boston sports history, even if its improbability was in part the product of underachievement.
The 2008 title was completely different. From the outside, it all seemed to go to plan. The Big Three, all in their primes instead of in decline, were better than advertised. We saw the first glimpses of greatness from Rajon Rondo. Veteran reserves James Posey and Eddie House melded seamlessly into the fabric of the Celtics. It all seemed predestined.
Banner No. 17 was special because it was the Celtics first championship in more than two decades and it put the storied franchise back on the NBA map.
But the '08 edition of the Celtics was a 66-win juggernaut that didn't face any real adversity until the playoffs, when it couldn't win a game away from home until the Eastern Conference finals and had to play a pair of Game 7s at home in the preceding rounds.
You can make a case that those Celtics had a harder time reaching the Finals because of those two Game 7s -- this is the first Game 7 of the 2010 playoffs for the Green -- but being pushed to the limit by the Hawks and Cavaliers then was less about the talent of those teams and more about the Celtics realizing greatness is forged not found, which it ostensibly had been from the moment Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen were united.
This is different and more difficult.
"I guess so," said Pierce. "Yeah, it's tough but winning a championship is tough, so you've got to expect it."
Playing without Perkins is just the latest obstacle for this obstinate group. It will only add to the legend of this team, if Rasheed Wallace or Glen "Big Baby" Davis ride to the rescue, or if KG ends up manning the middle and does his best Bill Russell impression.
Perkins is on crutches, but the Celtics aren't going to use his absence as a crutch. They've come too far for that.
"We're dealing with everything that's going on, but I'm pretty sure both sides can say the same thing," said Garnett. "You know you don't get to this point and learn to appreciate it without going through something."
The Celtics have gone through a lot this year, if they can go through another championship celebration when it's all said and done then they will have accomplished something I didn't think was possible from this team when they began the playoffs exactly two months ago -- topping 2008.
LOS ANGELES -- You knew this was going seven. It couldn't take anything less to decide this series between these teams. It was the NBA's version of manifest destiny.
I'm sure there is much hyperventilating going on in the Hub today after the Lakers dismantled the Celtics, 89-67, in Game 6, the 67 points a new low point for the Celtics, literally. They were the fewest points this fabled franchise has ever scored in an NBA Finals game.
It became quite clear the Celtics weren't winning this one in the second quarter, when both Shelden Williams and Rajon Rondo clanged dunks. I haven't checked with the Elias Sports Bureau, but it's safe to say that a team has never won a clinching game of the NBA Finals on the road while bricking a pair of slams. You have to miss dunks to shoot .333 percent from the field.
So, instead of celebrating another championship, the Celtics are preparing for another game. Instead of dousing each other with champagne in the visiting locker room of the Staples Center they were forced to swallow a humbling defeat. Instead of preparing to participate in another rolling rally, they got rolled.
It's okay. This is just all part of the process in this see-saw series. The Celtics and Lakers are too talented, too evenly matched, too well-coached and too championship-driven (the royalty check is in the mail, M.L. Carr) to determine legacies and the Larry O'Brien Trophy without going to the limit.
The last two NBA champions are going the distance to decide the next titlist. It has a certain symmetry to it, so you might as well sit back and enjoy the bonus basketball, even if it means gnawing your nails LeBron James-style. In an NBA playoffs that has been devoid of drama, the Celtics and Lakers will script a dramatic conclusion.
"This is what it's all about," said Glen "Big Baby" Davis. "This is what you guys are going to talk about for years. You guys are going to remember this moment. You are going to remember Thursday forever. I can't wait. I can't wait to step up on the floor and win here in LA."
Did the Celtics truly believe they'd win last night and close it out at the Staples Center? Absolutely.
Are they surprised it's going to take a seventh game to vanquish their Southern California counterparts? "No, not at all. Not at all," said Garnett.
"No. You know it's Lakers-Celtics, the biggest rivalry in NBA basketball, seven games. It is what it is," said Rajon Rondo, part of the Core Four, who through three quarters had every one of Boston's 51 points.
That's right Paul Pierce (13), Ray Allen (16), Garnett (12) and Rondo (10) had accounted for every Celtics point up until that point, as they trailed the Lakers by 25 (76-51) after three. Boston's ballyhooed backups had zero points until Nate Robinson hit a reverse layup and got fouled with 9:56 left in the game.
The occasionally quarrelsome quartet finished with 54 points, led by 19 from Allen, who broke an 0-18 3-point skid and was the only one to score in a fourth quarter that was glorified garbage time.
You can also toss this game into the cerebral circular file. It's over, and we shouldn't expect a repeat. Game 7 should be more reflective of the series, tense, taut, tight and tremendous.
There has been a lot of discussion about 50-50 balls in this series. Well, Game 7 is the ultimate 50-50 proposition. The teams are so even after six games that they even have the same primary injury concern. Both teams could be without their centers due to right knee injuries.
Kendrick Perkins sprained his right knee going up for a rebound with 5:30 left in the first quarter, hobbled off and never returned. Watching him limp out of the arena in street clothes, it doesn't look good for Game 7.
After the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said that Andrew Bynum, whose right knee issues have been well-documented, asked the Zen Master to pull him after a minute and 42 seconds of the third quarter, telling Jackson, "You've got to take me out. I can't run."
"It's unfortunate what happened to him," said Bynum of Perkins. "I know where he's at, so I wish him the best, and I hope he'll be able to play."
Both centers are candidates for a Willis Reed-type attempt at playing. Choose any well-worn sports bromide you like, but the sentiment is the same -- you're not sitting out this game if you can walk.
Davis, who was scoreless last night, and Rasheed Wallace, who missed all of his "big boy" shots, going 0 for 7 and 0 for 6 from 3-point land, figure to get the call if Perkins can't go or is severely impeded by the knee.
Lakers point guard Derek Fisher said after the game that he didn't believe in leprechauns, but does he believe in omens?
Game 7 is going to be played on June 17, exactly two years to the day of the Celtics defeating the Lakers to win their 17th NBA title. That was the last time a Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals featured such a resounding rout, as the Celtics blasted the Lakers 131-92 in Game 6 at TD Garden.
On the anniversary of their last title, the Celtics will try to win their next. The Green want to secure Banner No. 18 on June 17. If you're the superstitious type, the date has to count for something.
The truth is we latch on to anything in a Game 7 because they are completely unpredictable, sports' version of a complete crap shoot.
What is very predictable is that it would take seven games for the Lakers and Celtics to settle the matter of crowing an NBA champion.
The NBA Finals have become a numbers game heading into Game 6. If you're a Celtics fan, you realize that number alone, six, is the most significant in franchise history. A fellow with 11 rings named Bill Russell wore it.
Leading this best-of-seven series three games to two, the Celtics are just one win away from their second championship in three seasons and their 18th in franchise history. To do it tonight in Los Angeles, they're going to have to win their third straight game in the NBA Finals and beat LA for the second time in the series on the home court of Kobe and his compatriots/dependents.
The Celtics, who are playing the Lakers in an NBA Finals for the 12th time, are 11-0 when they have a 3-2 lead in a Finals series and 34-1 all-time in the postseason. The Lakers have some numerology on their side. Lakers coach Phil Jackson, aka, the Ringmaster, is an incredible 47-0 when his team wins the first game of a playoff series. As you may recall, the Lakers delivered a victory -- and tacos for their fans -- in Game 1.
Hopefully, tonight is the end of the series for the Celtics -- history says it better be or else -- but here's my starting five of story lines for Game 6:
1. How about some help? -- That has to be what Kobe Bryant had to be thinking on the plane ride back to Los Angeles, after dragging his team into contention in Game 5. Kobe is somewhat quietly averaging 30.2 points per game in this series. As much as this series has been billed as a legacy-defining one for him, there is not much more he can do, win or lose. It's up to the other Lakers now and up to the Celtics to keep tossing a blanket over Bryant's supporting cast. In fairness, Pau Gasol has only had one bad game in this series, Game 5, and center Andrew Bynum has been hobbled by the torn meniscus in his right knee, but just how much the Lakers' "other" players, guys like Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest, can contribute will go a long way to deciding whether we see a decisive Game 7.
2. Follow the bouncing ball -- This is a series that Russell would love. The team that has won the rebounding battle has won each of the games. That's not an accident. The battle on the boards figures to be huge tonight, and that plays into just how much Bynum can give the Lakers. Through three games, the Celtics were facing a rebounding deficit -- LA was averaging 41.3 rebounds per game to the Celtics 36.7. Bynum re-aggravated his knee in the second half of Game 3 and Kevin Garnett was re-energized by a 25-point performance in that contest. Since then the carousel of fortune on caroms has spun in the Celtics' direction. The Green enjoyed a 76-68 combined rebounding advantage in wins in Game 4 and Game 5. Controlling the airspace above the rim is the key to another ring for the Celtics.
3. Reserving judgment -- The Celtics have had a clear advantage in bench play in this series, outscoring the Lakers' bench in every game, except Game 5 (14-13, LA). If the Celtics win the series, the defining game will be Game 4 when the Boston bench buried the Lakers, scoring 36 points. Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown gave the Lakers a lift and energy off the bench in Game 1. Since then they've been in the witness protection program. If they don't emerge, then LA's season is a wrap. For the Celtics, Nate Robinson has been an X-factor since Game 6 of the Orlando series and presented a matchup problem for the Lakers. Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen have both been tremendous on the defensive end while providing some timely baskets.
4. Ray of warmth? -- Ray Allen has obviously been dealing with far more important things in his personal life, the health of his diabetic son Walker, than anything on the basketball court. It's hard not to recall the image of Allen holding Walker in his arms on the parquet during the 2008 championship celebration, father and son both showing the heart of a champion. For a repeat of that heart-warming scene, Allen needs to warm up from the perimeter. Since reigning in Game 2 by raining down an NBA Finals record eight 3-pointers, Allen is o-fer from distance, missing 16 consecutive threes. At some point to close out this series, the Celtics are going to need Ray to find his way from range. Allen is simply too good a shooter to keep missing like this. We've seen him grown cold before (2008 playoffs) only to be trey magnifique when it really counted.
5. Push back -- When push comes to shove -- and it has now in this emotionally charged series -- the Celtics are still the tougher, more resolute, more physical team. After a foul-fest the first three games (Boston averaged 28 fouls per game and an average of 53 fouls per game were called on both teams), the referees have let the teams play in the last two games (Boston is averaging 23 fouls per game and an average of 44.5 fouls per game have been whistled) and not coincidentally that has benefited the Celtics. You could read Gasol's lips after he picked up a late foul on a missed free throw in Game 5, "I've been getting pushed all game," said Gasol, complaining to an official.
After the game, Gasol alluded to the Celtics being allowed to play with more force. "They do a good job of pushing you out of the post and getting you out of positions where you usually are," said Gasol. "They get into you. They do a good job. They're a good defensive team, a very good defensive team. They got their way tonight for the most part. They got a great win for them."
Translation: They beat me up again, just like '08. The question is, will Gasol and the Lakers push back at home or will the referees do it for them, which is what happened the last time this series was played in La-La land.
Celtics fans, take another day to soak up the green-tinted euphoria from the last game played on the parquet this season. That was a quite a send-off you were given by your hoops heroes, who sojourn back to Southern California one win away from Banner No. 18.
Before they turned out the lights at the Garden, the Celtics shot the lights out in a 92-86 victory over the Lakers in Game 5, shooting a post-season high 56 percent from the floor and putting the entire Core Four in double digits. Their final field goal of the game was an inbounds play that looked like a game of ultimate frisbee, featuring a pair of sensational snags by Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. Bill Belichick, who was in attendance, probably wanted to leap out of his seat and sign both Pierce and Rondo to compete for the Patriots' third wide receiver role.
Yes, there was plenty of cause for celebration on Causeway Street. Now, it's time for some pause. Sorry to interrupt your gloating, but this series isn't over. Not by a long-shot, which is certainly not what the Lakers are in this series, not with two games on their home floor, starting with Game 6 tomorrow. I don't care what the historical numbers -- 19 of the last 25 teams to win Game 5 have won the Finals -- say.
The Celtics became the first team to win two in a row in this series, but now they have to become the first (and only) team in the series to win two games on the road or they're returning home without the title. Seems fitting because this redoubtable bunch has taken the road of greatest resistance all season long.
Close-out games on the road have not exactly been the Celtics forte since Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen revitalized the franchise. Boston's starting five has never lost a playoff series (7-0), but only once have they closed out one on the road -- the 2008 Eastern Conference finals in Detroit. The Celtics are 1-7 in put-away away games over the last three seasons, and may I remind you the last time they lost a playoffs series, which was sans-KG last season, they were up 3-2 on the Magic and that was without the added burden of the 2-3-2 Finals format putting the final two games on somebody else's floor.
This series is close with a capital C. After five games, the teams are collectively separated by just one basket -- the Celtics have scored 464 points and the Lakers have scored 462. The team that has won the rebound battle has won each game.
The Celtics are averaging 47.8 rebounds per game to the Lakers 47. The Lakers are averaging 38.4 rebounds per game to the Celtics 37.2. (Due to an incorrect Game 5 post-game stat sheet, the rebound numbers were revised.)
Rondo, who has shown a maturity beyond his years in these playoffs, showed sagacity that belied his age in assessing the State of the Finals.
"It's still anybody's series," said Rondo. "They're the defending champions. I'm sure they're going to come out and fight hard, so it's not over -- the series is not over yet."
A commonly held theory in the NBA is that bench players and supporting players usually play better at home. The Lakers can't wait to return to the land of palm trees, celebrities and paparazzi. Much-maligned Lakers forward Lamar Odom, was already eagerly anticipating sleeping in his own bed after Game 5. There is a significantly greater chance of the cavalry arriving for Kobe Bryant, who dropped 38 in Game 5 and is averaging 30.2 points per game in this series, at the Staples Center than a reprisal of his lone gunman act at the Garden.
Despite getting just 48 points from the non-Kobe Lakers, who shot a collective 35 percent from the field, LA had its chances late in Game 5. Ron Artest missed a pair of free throws with 43.3 seconds left and the Celtics clinging to a five-point lead (87-82).
Lakers forward Pau Gasol, who spoke with his back against the wall in the visitor's locker room, his appearance metaphorically mirroring his team's, said if you presented the current scenario to the Lakers at the beginning of the season they would have snapped it up faster than you can say TMZ.
"We are in a good situation," said the circumspect Spaniard. "As tough as it is losing these last two games we're going to fight for a championship at home. That's a position that we all would be happy to be in at the beginning of the season."
Clearly, this is a case of the irresistible force and the immovable object because the Celtics have played their best on the road all season, with more than half of their 50 regular-season victories coming as visitors. The Green tied Cleveland for the second-best road record in the NBA this season at 26-15.
The Lakers meanwhile were one of the best home teams in the NBA. Their 34-7 mark tied them with Orlando, Atlanta and Denver for the second-best in the league behind the LeBrons. The Lakers hadn't lost a home playoff game until the Celtics broke their serve in Game 2 of the Finals. LA is 9-1 at home this postseason.
Of course Philosopher Phil Jackson probably stresses to his team that home is really more of a metaphysical locale found in the recesses of the mind than a physical place of bricks and mortar existence. Either way, it's been a good place for the Lakers.
The team to whom these Celtics are most often compared, the 1968-69 rendition of the Green, had to win its title in Los Angeles at the old Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, Calif., Pierce's hometown. Somebody is going to win an NBA title on their home turf, Pierce or the Lakers. Either way it's not going to be easy.
"This will probably be the hardest game of the season, if not of the series, if not of everybody's career," said Garnett.
The season is over at the Garden, but as for the Finals they're far from it. About 3,000 miles from it.
If, as the old proverb goes, it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a Big Baby and his friends to raise a championship banner.
It has become abundantly clear that if the Celtics are to win this series and their second NBA title in three years, it's not going to be on the backs of the Big Three or the Core Four or the Starting Five or a certain eccentric Sixth Man. It's going to take The Rotation.
The bench was the story of Game 4, pulling away from the Lakers in the fourth quarter by scoring 21 of their 36 points and 21 of the Celtics' overall 36 points in the period to lock up the series, 2-2, heading into Sunday's Game 5. For all the talk about the emergence of Rajon Rondo and the resurgence of Kevin Garnett during these playoffs, the Celtics best games have not come when there has been a virtuoso performance, but rather a collaborative one.
Games 2 and 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Cleveland they put six players in double figures. Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals they had a half dozen double-digit scorers. All were pivotal, series-altering victories. Last night with the season on the line, the Celtics put six men in double digits on the scoresheet again, with Davis (18 points) and Nate Robinson (12 points) joining Paul Pierce (team-high 19 points), Kevin Garnett (13), Ray Allen (12) and Rajon Rondo (10).
"I think it was our best win of the year, as far as a team effort," said Rondo.
Last night is the Green's blueprint for how they obtain Banner No. 18. It's the reason that Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are planning a superstar free agent summit while the Celtics are still playing to reach the game's summit. It's the reason that the best center in the game, Dwight Howard, is preparing to hawk a line of Superman-inspired clothing instead of donning his jersey for NBA Finals games.
It's also the only way the Celtics are going to overcome the indomitable will and incredible shot-making of Kobe Bryant with two of the next three games in Los Angeles. Long before the Patriot Way, the Celtics were a franchise that prided itself on balance and teamwork. Doc Rivers's group is just going retro.
"It is [the blueprint], said Rondo. "We play great as a team. It wasn't one person that won the game tonight, and that's what it's going to take to win the series."
In this series, Pierce, Garnett, Allen, Rondo and Davis are averaging double-figures. The Lakers only have Kobe, who is dropping 28.3 per game, Pau Gasol (20.5) and the banged-up Andrew Bynum (10.5) doing it on their side.
We remember the 2008 NBA Finals for Pierce's MVP performance, KG's dominance and Ray Allen's marksmanship, but the bench came up huge. That was one of the biggest questions before this series -- did the Celtics pine of the present match up to its reserve stock of the past? The resounding answer is yes, minus Robinson's ill-advised Napoleon complex technical foul in the fourth quarter.
Davis is a bigger, badder, more skilled version of Leon Powe. Robinson isn't a better shooter than House, but he can hit threes too and can drive the lane like House never could. Tony Allen has taken over Posey's role as the Kobe stopper, and Rasheed Wallace, bad back and all, is quite an upgrade over the venerable P.J. Brown.
It was in Game 4 two years ago that the bench turned the tide in that Celtics-Lakers series. James Posey and Eddie House sparking the comeback from 24 down (20 mid-way through the third quarter). Posey had 18 points in that game and House had 11, eerily similar to what Davis and Robinson put up last night.
The Celtics bench has outscored the Lakers bench in each of the four games of the series, and Lakers coach Phil Jackson mentioned last night that not getting more out of his bench led to Bryant and Gasol being gassed in the final period.
"Their bench was huge," said Lakers sixth man Lamar Odom.
The Lakers have the best leading man in this series, Kobe. That is not even disputable, but the best supporting cast clearly belongs to the Celtics. T-E-A-M trumps K-O-B-E.
Just how much help His Kobeness gets in this series could determine the outcome. Bynum, who played just 1 minute 50 seconds of the second half because of the partially torn meniscus in his right knee, has become arguably the linchpin of the series for the Lakers. Bynum didn't play in the finals two years ago due to a dislocated knee cap in his other knee. The difference is obvious.
His presence in the paint alters the game and deepens the Lakers bench by letting Odom be a fresh reinforcement. Beyond Odom, LA doesn't have much to count on. Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown have both had their moments in the series, but they're not exactly reliable pieces for the Purple and Gold.
Pierce, Ray Allen and Garnett all learned the hard way throughout their careers that it's hard to win it on your own. They appreciate team basketball.
"KG, he don't like it when they say it's the Big Three or the Big Four. He likes it when it's team," said Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. "Any time he get an award he always brings his team because it's done within the team. ...That's all we preach is team around here."
Team has the Celtics back in this series and team is exactly what it will take to for them to finish off the Lakers and finish the Finals as champions.
Kobe Bryant is not the only one with a legacy on the line in these NBA Finals.
Regardless of what Paul Pierce does or doesn't do in the Finals, his No. 34 will be hoisted to the rafters one day at TD Garden. He has already elevated his place in Celtics lore. Only John Havlicek and Larry Bird have scored more points in a Celtics uniform. Only Bird (24.3) has averaged more points per game as a Celtic than Pierce (22.5).
But another ring moves Pierce into the pantheon of the parquet with Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Havlicek, and Bird. It makes it easier to argue for his inclusion over Dave Cowens or Kevin McHale or Tommy Heinsohn or Sam Jones. History is written with the pen of the present, and right now the Celtics, trailing 2-1 in the Finals, need a legendary performance from Pierce in Game 4.
If the Lakers win tonight to go up 3-1, then the Celtics' comparisons to the 1968-69 team remain full of hot air like those famous Forum balloons. A Kobe-led team is not blowing a 3-1 lead with two games on its home floor, at least not one with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
So, tonight is like Game 7 for the Celtics and for Pierce, who no doubt was rooting for LA back in 1987 when the Lakers took a 3-1 lead in the Finals on Magic Johnson's mini-skyhook in an unfortunate Lakers-Celtics Game 4.
If Pierce doesn't pick up his play, then his proclamation about not returning to Los Angeles could prove prophetic for all the wrong reasons. It could haunt him like that May night in Indiana five years ago when he was ejected late in a playoff game after absorbing a hard foul and left the court helicoptering his jersey above his head, his ego and emotions spinning out of control.
"I have to just -- there's times I have to rise to the challenge," said Pierce, who has grown exponentially as a person and a player since the Indiana imbroligio. "We have a 1-2 hole, I have to play better, and I have to accept the challenge."
Whether it's foul trouble, off-nights or Ron Artest, Pierce has been scarce the last two games.
He started off 0-5 in both contests. In Game 2, the Celtics won despite him being just 2 of 11 from the field and not netting his first field goal until the third quarter. In Game 3, he started 0-5 again, and ended up with as many fouls (five) as field goals on his way to a 15-point night that included a meaningless layup with 5.1 seconds, making both the final score and his play look more palatable than they were.
The good news is that in 2008, when Pierce was Finals MVP, he also had a stinker in Game 3 -- 2 of 14, 6 points -- before dropping 20 in the famous Game 4 comeback.
"You know, we need Paul. We need Paul to be Paul Pierce, The Truth," said Kevin Garnett, who knows a thing or two about redemptive NBA Finals performances. "But it has to be something that...within everybody's flow of the game."
The truth about the Truth is that he has played two impactful quarters so far in these Finals. In Game 1, he had 24 points and 9 rebounds. He came out of the gate like a thoroughbred at the Santa Anita Derby, scoring 9 points in the first quarter. Then with his team trailing by 20, he had 13 points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter.
Strange, considering two years ago Pierce was the best player on the floor for much of the Finals. It's not a coincidence that two years ago Pierce was the Finals MVP, averaging 21.8 points per game. Pierce has always craved the limelight and for too long in his career he didn't have it.
It was just three years ago that he was mired on a team that was in the middle of a franchise-record 18-game losing streak. Instead of Ray Allen, he was playing with Allan Ray. The "Kevin" he had at power forward was Kevinn Pinkney.
Defiant, Pierce claimed that he was the classic case of a great player stuck on a bad team and that the only difference between himself and the NBA's brightest starts was the stage.
"There's a lot of times that I look at my peers, the Dwyane Wades, the LeBron James, the Kobe Bryants, I feel like I'm at the same level as all these guys," said Pierce in an interview with WEEI, hours before the Celtics ended up snapping their franchise-record losing skid against the Milwaukee Bucks.
"The only difference is the wins and being on a national stage. [That] is what separates us. I haven't had that opportunity this year."
He had that opportunity in 2008 and seized it. Now, he has it again.
There's no telling how many more times in his career Pierce, who turns 33 in October, will have this chance -- the chance to win a championship, the chance to cement his place in Celtics history.
Pierce could be entering a phase of his career like the other big No. 34 in town, David Ortiz, where injuries and age rob him of some of his once transcendent talent. Already, this season Pierce, who will never have a Men's Health magazine cover physique, has dealt with a creaky knee that had to be drained multiple times, a strained left mid-foot, and a banged up right thumb.
Pierce can opt-out of the final year of his contract and forego the $21.5 million he would make next season. It could get interesting if he does and the Celtics are leery of making another long-term commitment to an aging player.
He has always toed the line between Celtics Pride and Celtics Conceit in his career. But more often than not Pierce has proven the doubters to be as wrong as his playoffs predictions thus far.
Can he do it one more time?
It's official, the 2010 NBA Finals have become the whistle-stop tour, and we have Phil Jackson's public posturing to thank for it.
I don't think officiating is why the Celtics lost Game 3 last night to go down two games to one to the Lakers. That had a lot more to do with another slow start for Paul Pierce, Ray Allen's 0-fer, and Derek Fisher's fourth-quarter heroics.
Yet, it would be gross negligence at this point to fail to mention the impact officiating is having on the series. Jackson is a master motivator of players and master manipulator of officials.
He is like Obi-Wan Kenobi when it comes to planting a thought in the collective conscious of the whistle-blowers. He did it before the Lakers played Oklahoma City, talking about the favorable treatment Kevin Durant got. Before the Western Conference finals he intimated that Steve Nash gets away with palming the basketball. The idea he pushed before the series was that the Celtics were a knock-down, drag-out, WWE outfit. He called them a "smackdown" team.
It is merely a coincidence then that a member of the Big Three has been saddled with foul difficulty in each of the first three contests? In Game 1 it was Ray Allen, who was taken out of his rhythm with five fouls. In Game 2, it was Kevin Garnett with five personals. Last night, Pierce had the honors, as he accumulated five fouls.
Pierce started off 0-5 from the field for the second straight game, and is clearly off his game. He was also out of the game for long stretches.
"You know. Paul never got a rhythm," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "Every time he came on the floor, another whistle blows and he had to sit down. He was completely taken out of the game by the foul calls. I'll give [Ron] Artest credit when he deserves it, but today it was more that Paul Pierce had to sit on the bench. He'd play five minutes, have to go back down four minutes have to sit. I mean he wasn't allowed to play. They didn't allow him to play tonight."
Rivers went on to say that the Lakers getting foul calls on Pierce "was their best play."
Now, in fairness it should be pointed out that Lakers players have encountered some foul trouble too. The referees deigned to call five fouls on Kobe Bryant in Game 2, which is virtually hoops heresy. Of course there was a better chance of Kobe garnering an Emmy for his appearance on "Modern Family" than of being fouled out in a Finals game.
Perhaps, the most egregious call or non-call of the series was Ray Allen colliding with Kobe chest-to-chest on a fast-break lay-up late in Game 2. The officials swallowed their whistles so hard as Allen thudded to the floor that the Heimlich Maneuver couldn't have dislodged them.
The Lakers shot 41 free throws in Game 2 to Boston's 26, one free throw more than Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum had combined.
After that game, Philosopher Phil critiqued and tweaked the officials. "I wasn't happy with those calls," said Jackson.
Of course he wasn't. When is he ever? Phil was working it once again, and it worked.
There is really nothing Rivers can do about it, except try to cry foul over Jackson's politicking.
"I'm just miffed and amazed how the other team complained about the fouls since we've been the team that's been in foul trouble for two games," Rivers said prior to Game 3. "Maybe they do different math there or something. I don't get that one."
Let's do some math of our own.
The Celtics were the home team last night, which is usually an NBA euphemism for the team that will get the calls, and while each team went to the free throw line 24 times, the Celtics were called for seven more fouls than their West Coast counterparts (27-20) by Messrs. Danny Crawford, Bennett Salvatore and Bill Kennedy.
Through the first three games of the series, the Lakers have taken 10 more free throws than the Celtics (96 to 86) and been whistled for nine fewer personal fouls (75 to Boston's 84).
The Celtics averaged 22.1 fouls per game during the regular season. Coming into this series, the Celtics were averaging 24.5 fouls per game in the playoffs. They've been called for 28 per game in the first three games of this series. The Lakers were averaging 23.6 fouls per game prior to the Finals. They've been called for 25 fouls per game in this series.
So, the Celtics foul average has increased by 3.5 fouls and the Lakers by about 1.5. That's what we call a discretion discrepancy.
Not surprisingly, the Lakers don't see it that way.
"I don't know, man, the referees they're calling it tight on both parts. They're reffing it fair I think," said Artest, the only player to foul out so far in the series.
"I thought they called it fair. Even in Game 2, I thought they kind of called it fair. [It's] not just because we won, even when we lost I thought they called it fair. Sometimes you can be frustrated with the referees, but it's a hard game to call. Both teams are complaining all the time, so something's got to be either right or wrong, but I know both teams are complaining the whole time."
Some are going to want to bring up the three replays last night. I went back and watched each of the out of bounds replays -- all of which came in the final 1:29 -- and to the crew's credit they got them all correct. On the last one, following a missed Pierce free throw, Rajon Rondo actually fouled Lamar Odom, forcing the ball out of bounds.
For once, there was no call and the Celtics got the ball. Should have been Odom at the free throw line.
The Celtics can't blame the officials for being down 2-1 in this series. They have to play better, but something definitely smells a little foul about Jackson's public pleas to the referees and their results.
As Lakers and Celtics go coast-to-coast and begin the parquet portion of the NBA Finals enough basketball has been played in the first two contests that trends have been established, advantages revealed and performances judged.
The feeling-out process is over and the series, deadlocked at a game a piece, is really now kicking into gear. No one has to tell players and fans that Game 3 is pivotal. Everyone knows it. With the Celtics circuit of the Finals about to commence, here is a starting five of players to watch tonight:
1. Kevin Garnett: Where else to start our five but with No. 5? Yo, where art thou KG? Pau Gasol got the best of him in Game 1 and foul trouble did it in Game 2. It's wasn't an accident that the first play the Celtics ran in Game 2 was a post-up for Garnett, who hit a baseline turnaround over Gasol. The Celtics know they need KG engaged to win this series. Unfortunately, he hasn't been a meal ticket since the Cleveland series.
Unlike two years ago, it's been Garnett who has been pushed around in the paint and bullied by Gasol and Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who combined for 33 points and 20 rebounds in Game 1 and 46 points and 14 rebounds in Game 2. One sequence in Game 2 was particularly telling. Bynum grabbed an offense rebound and went up and dunked with KG hitching a piggyback ride to the rim. Not pretty.
To quote former NBA player and future NBA coach Mark Jackson, KG, you're better than that. It seems incomprehensible that Garnett is going to only grab four rebounds a game for the series and be dominated by Gasol and Bynum. He is too good a player with too much pride. The best way for him to fight back is on the boards and by making Gasol and Bynum run the floor to guard him.
2. Lamar Odom: Before the series Odom said he was worried about bringing his wife, Khloe Kardashian, to Boston because of the fan vitriol. Odom should simply be concerned about showing up himself. Odom has been like that wedding guest who takes the time to RSVP and send a gift and then never shows up to the church. The Lakers' sixth man has had zero impact in the Finals with two more fouls (10) so far than points (8).
When Odom is on his game he is a tremendously skilled and versatile big man, one who can handle the ball, stretch the defense and make pinpoint passes. But the Celtics have been able to neutralize him with physical play, much like they did two years ago, forcing him to guard Glen "Big Baby" Davis in the post. If the Lakers can get Odom going like they did in the Western Conference Finals, when he averaged 14 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, then they'll be able to keep Gasol and Bynum fresh and add another dimension to the triangle offense.
3. Paul Pierce: Say this for Pierce, he never lacks confidence, whether it's taking a last-second shot or making a vainglorious statement about finishing off a playoffs series at home. Pierce might not plan on going back to LA in this series, but hopefully he plans on returning to the form he had in the Orlando series. Save for two quarters (the first and the fourth) in Game 1, Pierce's game has been surprisingly quiet. Eleven of his 24 points in Game 1 came in the fourth, but the Celtics were already down 20. In Game 2, Pierce was 2 of 11, missed his first five shots and didn't hit a field goal until the third quarter.
The Celtics don't need Pierce to be the offensive focal point like he was two years ago, but they do need him to attack Los Angeles's defense and help get their big men in foul trouble. Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo picked up the slack in Game 2, but over the course of the series Pierce is still the Celtics best offensive option and best one-on-one player.
4. Ron Artest: Artest's play is a reflection of his personality -- unpredictable. On the court, Artest is bipolar. One minute he's the perfect complement, like he was in Game 1, the next he's an obvious detriment (see Game 2). Which Ron-Ron shows up in Game 3, the guy who was a plus-26 with 15 points, a few dagger 3-pointers, and a huge block, or the guy who the next game went 1 for 10, jacked up ill-advised jumpers while the game was in the balance and fouled out? The answer is probably somewhere in between, but if I'm the Celtics I encourage Artest, who has taken 11 3-pointers, seven more than Pierce, the 3-point shootout champion, to keep shooting.
5. Rajon Rondo: It's obvious the difference in the game when it's played at Rondo speed. That's a point guard's job, to dictate and control the pace and Rondo did it superbly in Game 2. In order to facilitate the fast break, he used a skill that is uniquely Rondo -- his ability to rebound. Rajon the Rebounder pulled down a game-high 12 in Game 2 on his way to a triple-double and that allowed the Celtics to get out in transition and get more transition baskets against the Lakers. At least three of Ray Allen's seven first-half 3-pointers came on fast breaks or in transition.
The Celtics need more of Rondo unchained in Game 3. The Lakers are a much better defensive team than two years ago, so it's important for the Celtics to create opportunities before LA can set up its D. Usually, in the NBA it's young teams that want to get up and down and run and older teams that prefer to operate in the half court. The Celtics, an aged group by NBA standards, can do both, but Rondo's incredible ability in the open court necessitates they try to push it whenever possible.
LOS ANGELES -- Feel better now Celtics fans?
You certainly should because the Celtics are headed home from the Left Coast locked up at a game a piece with the Lakers and their A-game never made an appearance in front of the A-List celebrities at Staples Center during two games.
The Celtics, specifically Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo, certainly had their moments, and the never-been-beaten starting five dug down deep over the final 5 minutes, 21 seconds to escape from LA with a 103-94 win and a hard-earned split last night. But they are capable of playing better basketball. That's not being negative. Quite the contrary. It's a real cause for optimism on Causeway Street for anyone with an interest in seeing Banner No. 18 ascend to the rafters at TD Garden.
The Celtics did what they needed to do and what all great teams do -- find a way to a win when they weren't at their best.
Earning a split in Los Angeles last night was a steal of Havlicekian proportions for the Green when you consider that the Celtics have yet to have a game in the NBA Finals where they didn't have a member of the Big Three plagued by foul trouble, where Kevin Garnett collected more than four rebounds, or where they slowed down the Lakers' front court tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The two Towers of Terror combined for 46 points and 14 rebounds in Game 2, while shooting an astonishing 25 free throws. Bynum had a playoff career-high-tying 21 points.
The Celtics, who pride themselves on defense, are not going to let that continue all series long.
"We still haven't played our best," said Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. "I thought Gasol and Bynum dominated still on the offensive end. Shot a high percentage from the field. We got to do a better job of controlling those guys, and we'll be alright."
The can't-be-counted-out Celtics won on a night when Garnett had just one more point (six) than fouls (five), and Paul Pierce was 2 for 11 for 10 points, converting his first field goal with 6:07 left in the third quarter, a backdoor lay-up off a beautiful feed from Rasheed Wallace.
I'm pretty sure if you presented the above scenario to Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who incredulously whined and pouted about the officiating after his team lost, he would have taken it.
The Celtics survived because Rondo was so much larger than his 6-foot, 1-inch frame, posting his fifth career playoff triple-double (19 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists), including 10 fourth-quarter points, and Ray Allen was beyond hot from beyond the arc with 32 points and an NBA Finals-record eight 3-pointers, including a 7-for-7 start on treys.
Still, with apologies to Jack Nicholson, this was not, "As Good as It Gets" for the Green, and they know it, not when outside of the sterling starting backcourt Boston shot 17 of 46.
"No," said Glen "Big Baby" Davis. "Kevin was what 2 of 5 with five fouls. Paul didn't shoot that well. I went [4 for 13]. I didn't hit those jump shots, even though I made those layups. A lot of guys didn't play capable of what they can play, so that's a scary fact when we're all cooking and we're all doing what we're supposed to do."
It's quite a scary thought for the Lakers, who were held under 100 points for the first time since the first round of the playoffs, a stretch of 11 straight games that started following a 95-94 series-clinching victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 30.
This wasn't like Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Cleveland, when the Celtics put six players in double figures, shot 51 percent from the floor and led by 25 points in the fourth quarter. You have to believe that the Celtics still have that type of performance left in them for the Finals. They've had at least one decisive, clicking-on-all cylinders win in each of their previous playoff series.
Why should this series be any different? It shouldn't. If these playoffs have proven anything it's that the Celtics' best is better than the rest, just ask the Cavs and the Magic.
Now, the Celtics return to the parquet for three straight home games, starting tomorrow night. Since the inception of the 2-3-2 playoff format in 1985, only two teams have pulled off the home sweep, the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who unceremoniously ended the Kobe-Shaq era in Los Angeles, and the 2006 Miami Heat. Both teams won NBA titles.
That's why winning last night was huge.
"It was big for us," said Rondo. "It would be tough for us to go home and win three straight. It's possible, but it would be very tough with the defending champs. We did what we needed to do, came out here and got a split."
They did what they needed to do after a horrible Game 1 performance. As Pierce said, there was no where to go but up.
The captain liked what he saw in Game 2, but he knows there is still room for improvement.
"We didn't play our best basketball," said Pierce. "Hopefully, we can build on that and Game 3 it will come out."
As dire as the situation looked after a sloppy and soporific performance in Game 1 to have the series tied, 1-1, is the best possible outcome for the Celtics and reason to believe the best is yet to come.
Join me for an NBA Finals Game 2 pregame discussion. I'll be live from courtside at the Staples Center to talk about everything from the adjustments the Celtics must make to what the buzz is here in LA.
LOS ANGELES -- It was one of those "only in Southern California" scenes.
The clock was ticking down on Game 1 of the NBA Finals with the Lakers serving up an important series-opening win, and the amped up Staples Center crowd broke into a chant of ..."We want tacos! We want tacos!" mimicking a message flashing on the Jumbotron.
The fans got their tacos and the Celtics got a taste of their own medicine.
You see, Lakers fans in attendance get free tacos whenever the Lakers win and hold an opponent to fewer than 100 points. Last night, the Celtics couldn't even crack 90 in a 102-89 defeat to defensive-minded Los Angeles, which did little to resemble the team the Celtics pushed around two years ago and a lot to resemble the Celtics.
Granting Staples denizens gratis Mexican food could be the least of the Celtics' problems if Los Angeles continues to defend the way it did last night. LA beat the Celtics badly, and worse for Doc Rivers and Co., beat them at their own game, playing a more physical, fierce and court-clogging brand of basketball that started on the defensive end.
"The team that plays defense first is going to win," said Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. "We got enough offense. So do they. The team that plays defense first is going to win this series."
In Game 1, that team was the Lakers.
Los Angeles is a land of copycat trends, styles and ideas, and the Celtics could have sued the Lakers for copyright infringement, so frightening was the way they parroted the Celtics' acclaimed defensive prowess and provided a Purple and Gold parry to every Green thrust back into the game.
There was no better example of the Lakers' commitment to defense than their best player, Kobe Bryant, whom Perkins credited with closing the lane with his help defense. With the Celtics trailing by 11 late in the third quarter, Tony Allen went for a seemingly simple dunk in the lane. He was met at the rim and rejected by Bryant. The Lakers then closed the quarter on an 11-2 run to open up a 20-point lead.
Bryant, who dropped his customary 30 points and more importantly stymied Rajon Rondo, was asked about scoring 100 points on the Celtics and referred back to his team's effort on the other end.
"That's not something that we were hanging our hats on, to score 100 points," said Kobe. "We hang our hats on defending and rebounding."
Where have we heard that before? Pretty much after every Celtics game.
Before the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson was asked why the Celtics won the last Finals matchup between these two storied franchises and he cited Boston's defensive capabilities, its tenacity and its interior presence on the floor.
Last night those traits belonged to the Lakers. If the Celtics are going to leave LA with a split, they have to reclaim their hoops hallmarks.
While the Celtics' defense was allowing what Rivers called "a parade down the paint" and was getting dominated in the paint by a possessed Pau Gasol (23 points, 14 rebounds), the Lakers limited the Celtics to only 43.3 percent shooting from the floor and 1 of 10 on 3-pointers. The Lakers outrebounded Boston, 42-31, and blocked seven shots.
The Celtics didn't muster a single second-chance point. It was one and done for the boys from Boston, as evidenced by the fact that progeny of the parquet were held to postseason lows in field goals (29) and field goal attempts (67).
LA, meanwhile, shot 48.7 percent from the field and had 16 second-chance points, nearly all as close to the hoop as Lakers uber-fan Jack Nicholson sits to the court.
The Lakers refused to allow Rondo, who had a pedestrian 13-point, 8-assists evening, to get into gear in the open court. They made Kevin Garnett take 16 shots to score 16 points, and they kept Paul Pierce, who tried valiantly, yet in vain, to spark a Celtics comeback in the fourth quarter, from torching them like two years ago when he was Finals MVP. Pierce ended up with 24 points, but 13 of them came in the fourth quarter after LA had already built a 20-point lead.
What the Lakers showed the Celtics last night is that they are the defending NBA champions, emphasis on defending. For all the talk about how well the Celtics' defense has played in reaching the Finals -- and it has been tremendous, just ask LeBron James -- it went unnoticed that Los Angeles was actually holding its opponents to a slightly lesser field goal percentage (43.7 to 43.8 for Boston).
For fans saying nobody plays defense in the wild, wild Western Conference, during the regular season, the Lakers held opponents to 44.6 percent from the field. Celtics foes shot 45.1 percent.
Is there a feeling that the Lakers defense is overlooked and undervalued?
"That's probably accurate," said Ron Artest, who scored 15 points last night and had a huge block on Glen "Big Baby" Davis that led to a Gasol dunk in the fourth quarter, a sequence that was emblematic of the evening.
"I thought at times I heard a lot about Kobe and a lot about the Celtics defense, but I didn't hear a lot about our defense. Hopefully, we can change that."
They already have.
LOS ANGELES -- As he usually is when it comes to hitting long range goals, Ray Allen was on target the first time the Celtics played the Lakers this year, a 90-89 Los Angeles triumph a little more than four months ago.
"There is a lot of significance placed on this game because of the team that we played, but we have to do our part," Allen said. "We're going to see them again in their building [in February], but we have to do our part if we want to make it to that final stage, where possibly they might be. These games are great to play in and be a part of, but the bigger picture is getting out of this conference."
The Lakers are on that final stage and so are the Celtics, and after five days of posturing through the press (I'm looking at you Phil Jackson), repeated recounting of their storied past and more angles than the pro fishing tour, it's finally "Game Time!" as Cliff Levingston used to say in those Chicago Bulls huddles.
As the Finals commence, here is my starting five story lines heading into Celtics-Lakers, NBA Finals, version 12.0.
Forward thinking -- If Jackson says the most intriguing matchup of this series is the power forward showdown between Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol then who am I to disagree? KG basically punked Pau two years ago in the Finals and the cerebral Spaniard's toughness has been debated ever since. Game 6 at the Garden was a complete demolition job by Garnett, who averaged 18.2 points and 13 rebounds in the '08 Finals.
These two guys have headed in opposite directions since then. Gasol, who is averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds in the playoffs, has become a better defender and rebounder and won a ring, while injuries have robbed Garnett of his explosiveness on both the offensive and defensive end. KG was good against Miami, great against Cleveland and average against Orlando. You wonder if the grueling grind of the playoffs is starting to take its toll on his creaky knee. The Lakers are sure to test him early and try to establish that Pau won't be a punching bag or a punch line this time.
Healthy rivalry -- Doc Rivers isn't the only Doc who could have an impact on this series. Health, or lack there of, is going to play a big role. The Lakers are hoping that center Andrew Bynum, who has a partial tear of the meniscus in his right knee and recently had the knee drained, can provide them with the paint presence he did in the teams' two regular-season meetings. Anything LA gets from Bynum will be better than '08, when he missed the entire series with a dislocated left kneecap.
For the Celtics, the back woes of Rasheed Wallace and Rajon Rondo are concerning. Rondo relies on his speed and athleticism, and if he is diminished, so is his one-of-a kind game. Hopefully, 'Sheed is healthy enough to continue his stellar playoff play (minus-Miami). He has made the "big boy shots" and a difference against Cleveland and Orlando and could be the Celtics version of Robert Horry in this series if his back responds as well as his beloved Philadelphia Flyers.
Rondo reigning or reined in? -- Rondo may be the single most important Celtic in this series. The Promethean point guard's ability to penetrate and create can put LA's front line in foul trouble and most importantly force Kobe Bryant to expend considerable energy on the defensive end.
The Lakers have seen some pretty good point guards in the playoffs, Russell Westbrook of the Thunder, Deron Williams of the Jazz and Steve Nash of the Suns, so they're not going to panic about playing Rondo. Jackson said yesterday that it's no secret that Bryant will see some time on Rondo. That was the matchup Jackson went to in the fourth quarter of the team's first meeting this year, when the Celtics blew an 11-point lead. Rondo finished that game with 21 points and 11 assists and was a buzzsaw in the first three quarters. However, Bryant was a buzzkill in the fourth, as Rondo had no points on 0-2 shooting and no assists with Kobe guarding him and the Lakers daring him to shoot jumpers.
"He is an improved shooter," said Gasol, after LA's victory in January. "But we still want him to take those shots instead of getting into the lane."
Something in reserve -- One seemingly forgotten, yet vital aspect, of the Celtics' Finals victory over the Lakers two years ago was the play of their bench, specifically James Posey and Eddie House. The two reliable reserves keyed the comeback in Game 4 and the Game 6 rout. They stretched LA's defense thinner than an LA actress on a liquid diet, and Posey's defense was a big part of the reason that Kobe was contained, shooting just 40.2 percent from the floor.
The Celtics nouveau bench doesn't pose as many problems for the Lakers. We touched on 'Sheed. Tony Allen is going to spend a lot of time trying to bottle up Bryant. Don't fall for the headfakes, T.A. Please. "Big Baby" Davis needs to go back and watch tape of Leon Powe's performance in the '08 Finals because that's the type of energy and effort that can annoy a Lakers' team that likes to coast for periods. It would be nice if Nate Robinson could show he wasn't a one-game pony.
You make the call -- There are myriad other factors that could influence the outcome of this series -- how Paul Pierce handles being guarded by Ron Artest, Ray Allen's shooting touch, rebounding. But I'm going to go with the officiating because it will set the tone for the series. It's as obvious as a Kendrick Perkins pout that the Celtics are the more physical/rugged team in this series. But with Jackson already throwing down the verbal gauntlet about physical play it will be interesting to see if the referees let the boys play or play it close to the vest. The former favors the Celtics, the latter the Lakers.
Plus, there is the whole technical foul issue. Perkins, who has six, is one tech away from an automatic one-game suspension. He already got a reprieve when the league rescinded one of his dubious Orlando technicals. But there are bound to be technical fouls in this series. Three of the league's top four regular season technical foul scofflaws are in action. Perkins tied Dwight Howard for the NBA lead with 15. Behind them tied for third were Wallace and Bryant with 14.
Lost in all the agita and anger about and discussion and dissection of Dwight Howard's errant elbows, Kendrick Perkins incorrigible on-court decorum, odious officiating in Orlando and just how this series ended up morphing from fait accompli to possible NBA history is a very simple question: Where has Kevin Garnett gone?
As the Celtics' commanding three-games-to-none lead in the Eastern Conference finals has faded like an old t-shirt, so has Garnett. He has not looked like the same resurgent and at times dominant force that he was in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The intensity and effort are there as always -- you can never, ever question that with Garnett and that has been the case since he left Farragut Academy in 1995 -- but the output and impact are not.
The Green need Garnett to recycle his stellar play from earlier in the playoffs or the Celtics could be headed back to the Magic Kingdom and the sophomoric in-game antics of Amway Arena for an apocalyptic Game 7. A big game from the Big Ticket is the Celtics' pass to the NBA Finals and past Orlando.
Entering the conference finals, Garnett was averaging 17.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in the playoffs, while shooting 53.9 percent from the floor. He eviscerated Antawn Jamison in the Cleveland series, scoring at least 18 points in all six games, capped by 22 and 12 boards in the Game 6 series finale. Pre-Magic, his lowest scoring game of the playoffs was 14 points. That's his best effort against Orlando.
In five games against Orlando, No. 5 is averaging 10.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, while connecting on a woeful 37.1 percent of his shots. Whether it's his bothersome knee, playoff fatigue or an ill-timed cold streak, KG has not been the same.
At this stage of his career, Garnett is first and foremost a jump-shooter. He has evolved into a master of the step-out jumper, the pick and pop, and the turnaround J. His drives to the hoop and alley-oops have been curtailed by age and injury. Garnett's proclivity for jumpers is both foreboding and reassuring for Game 6. Jump shooters can go into horrific slumps, but they can just as easily come out of them. Just ask Ray Allen.
Let me be clear, Garnett is not the reason the Celtics are suddenly in a must-win Game 6. There are many, starting with pick and roll defense, and Jameer Nelson kicking his game into gear. I'm not putting the blame on KG's bald pate and broad shoulders. But just like they needed one big game from a struggling Paul Pierce to close out Cleveland, they need one vintage performance from Garnett to vanquish the Magic, and they haven't gotten it yet.
Garnett has been metaphorically banging his head against the basket support on the offensive end all series long.
The Celtics won both of the first two games of this series without Garnett shooting well, and Game 3 was all about balance. In that game, Garnett was an efficient 4 of 6 from the field and had 10 points, one of six Celtics to score in double-figures in a 23-point rout. But the last two games the Celtics have lost and Garnett has been nowhere to be found on the offensive end. He is 10 of 26 from the floor and has scored 14 points and 10 points, respectively.
It looked like Garnett might get going in Game 4 after he was elbowed in the face by Howard and picked up a technical. However, his 14-point performance in that game was a little deceiving because Garnett was 0-4 from the floor with three turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime after a 5 for 8 start.
There is one main reason that Garnett's lack of offensive production has gone unnoticed or unscrutinized until now. His Orlando counterpart at power forward, Rashard Lewis, had been a complete no-show until recently. Lewis lit up the Celtics to the tune of 20.4 points per game in last year's playoff series, but due to Garnett's great defense and a viral infection Lewis was 6 of 24 in the first three games, before scoring 13 and 14 points in Orlando's two wins.
Before this series the most common refrain when making a case for why the Celtics would beat the defending Eastern Conference-champion Magic was that this time they'd have the services of Garnett. Orlando was the team that dispatched the Celtics last season in the second-round, embarrassing them on their home floor in Game 7.
It was the first time the Celtics had ever lost a playoff series when leading 3-2; the progeny of the parquet had been 32-0 in such situations. But the one came with a seven-foot asterisk -- Garnett. Instead of on the court, he was in couture watching from the bench.
Now, the Magic could make unwanted Boston basketball history again, this time with Garnett in tow.
The good news for the Celtics is that the last two times the Celtics with Garnett have been in this situation -- 3-2, playing a close-out game at home -- Garnett has answered the bell. Game 6 against the Lakers in 2008, Garnett had a performance so sublime that the 26 points and 14 rebounds he put up don't even begin to due justice to the defining game of his Hall of Fame career.
More recently, Garnett was exquisite in eliminating the LeBrons, as he had 22 points, 12 rebounds and no turnovers. He started the game by hitting his first four shots -- all jumpers -- and set the tone to send the Cavaliers home.
The Magic have clearly rediscovered their shooting touch, and now it's time for Garnett to do the same.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The phrase the Big Three has a whole new meaning in the Celtics' Eastern Conference playoff series with the Orlando Magic, and it's not good if you're Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen or anyone else associated with the Celtics.
After going down three games to none in this Eastern Conference Finals series, the Orlando Magic were the longest of long shots, a half-court heave of hope. Now, their chance of succeeding where 93 previous NBA outfits have come up short has been metaphorically reduced to about the odds of sinking a 3-pointer.
Fitting. Long shots are what has allowed Orlando to extend this series to a sixth game, and in the process turn the tables and put the Celtics in must-win mode for tomorrow night's Game 6.
As much as the focus has been on Dwight Howard's muscle in the middle -- and he had another magnificent game with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks -- the Magic are a perimeter-partial group. Howard can flex and preen and throw errant elbows in the paint to intimidate and entertain, but it's beyond the arc that the Magic are pocking holes in the Celtics' vaunted defense.
The Magic turned Amway Arena into bombs-away arena last night, connecting on 13 of 25 3-pointers, their highest 3-point percentage in the playoffs, as they shot the Celtics into submission with a 113-92 win. Last night's long-distance display came on the heels of Wednesday night's near-miss for the Celtics, a game in which Orlando buried 10 treys in 28 attempts, the last two of which were overtime daggers by Jameer Nelson, who followed up his 23-point night on the parquet with a 24-point evening in front of the home folks.
This sequence sums up the state of the series. In the third quarter, with the Celtics having trimmed a 12-point lead to 71-65, Nelson drained a 28-foot 3-pointer with Rajon Rondo in his face as the 24-second shot clock expired.
After Nelson's shot you knew the momentum possession arrow in the series belonged to the Magic.
"Huge, huge," said Orlando forward Matt Barnes, who had three 3-pointers in four attempts last night. "Big-time players make big-time shots. We got a team full of shooters, and we're starting to play our game."
And the Celtics need to stop them before this goes any further than Friday.
Stan Van Gundy's guys are 7-0 in these playoffs when they make 10 or more threes. Orlando loves to launch. They led the NBA this season in threes attempted and made, and their 841 3-pointers was a new NBA single-season record.
"We know they're going to shoot open threes, and we know they're going to shoot challenged threes," said Pierce. "We got to make them put it on the ground."
The Celtics said coming into the series that stopping the three was their No. 1 priority, and they shooed Magic shooters away from the line in the first three games.
Now, with the Celtics chasing Nelson on the pick and roll, Magic shooters are practically setting up shop beyond the arc. That's a problem and the Celtics know it.
"They shot over 50 percent from the 3-point line and you can't beat that team doing that," said Garnett. "You have to take away the threes."
Look, the Celtics have plenty of problems stemming from this ill-fated trip to Central Florida. Kendrick Perkins's technical difficulties and ensuing early exit doubled with the possibility of a one-game suspension, the concussion that left Glen "Big Baby" Davis stumbling and staggering across the court like he had just left The Fours, and a back twinge that cast a pall on the best thing in Green last night, the team-high 21-point night for Rasheed Wallace (who seemed oddly inspired by the fact the Celtics were getting worked over by the Magic, their fans and the officials).
But all of the above are things the Celtics can't control. What they can control is how they defend Orlando at the 3-point line. They did a great job in Games 1-3, holding the Magic to 20 of 70 in the first three games. Now, stopping Orlando from beyond the arc seems beyond their reach and the series is suddenly in Orlando's.
"I think it's been real big," said Barnes of the 3-pointer. "I think the first few games they were so focused on letting Dwight beat them and running us off the line. Now, that Dwight is rolling I think they're paying a little bit more attention to him and we surround him with four guys who can knock down the three, so it's kind of like pick your poison."
The third time better be the charm for the Celtics when it comes to closing out this series because they want no part of returning to Orlando. Magic supporters are banking on spending Sunday with the Celtics.
A group of Orlando fans held up a sign that read "C-U-On Sunday," with a Magic logo used as the dashes. While grammatically incorrect, the sign might be prophetic. But just to hammer home the point the Orlando public address announcer closed the game by informing the fans when Game 6 was and saying, "We look forward to Game 7 Sunday right here."
Of course, only three teams in NBA history have rallied from a 3-0 hole to force a seventh game -- the 1993-94 Denver Nuggets, the 2002-03 Portland Trailblazers and the 1950-51 New York Knicks. The Celtics want to keep it that way.
"We know we're going to get their best effort," said Barnes. "We still got to come out and keep with our game plan, hit them first. They're in trouble if they let us come back here for Game 7."
Barnes is right because the Magic are beginning to believe that coming back from a 3-0 deficit is just like shooting threes. It's a long shot they're capable of making.
You couldn't miss it in the post-game press conference. Jameer Nelson's watch was massive. A shimmering black band with a face so expansive -- and no doubt expensive -- that it looked like a flat-screen TV was attached to the Magic point guard's wrist.
It was an apt accessory for Nelson to be sporting, though, because the little man's performance last night in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals was big time and a big reason the clock on the Magic's season didn't strike midnight.
For the first time in these playoffs, it was the other guys who had the dynamic point guard who imposed his will on the game and made crucial plays to quarterback his team to victory. There was no YouTube-worthy, Dave Cowens-channeling dive from Nelson, just a pick and roll clinic and clutch shots.
Orlando's adjustment to using staggered picks to free up Nelson left the Celtics staggered and relegated Rajon Rondo (muscle spasms) to an aching afterthought.
While Rondo was 3 of 10 from the field and had a meager 9 points and 8 assists, Nelson dropped 23 points (on 7 of 14 shooting) and had 9 assists. Delonte West's former backcourt mate at St. Joseph's was both fortunate and fearless. In overtime, Nelson hit back-to-back 3-pointers, banking in the first one and nailing the second to give the Magic a six-point lead, a lead they never relinquished, even with Nelson watching the game's final seconds from the bench after fouling out.
Even Superman needs a sidekick, and it's not a coincidence that Orlando got on the board in the Eastern Conference finals because they got an evening when Dwight Howard was on his game and his teammates didn't disappear.
It only took four games. Rashard Lewis finally showed up for the series, scoring 13 points -- or two fewer than he had in the first three games of the series -- and J.J. Redick was a pest as usual. But it was Nelson who put the broom back in Boston's closet.
If Game 3 goes in the Rajon Rondo NBA scrapbook, then Game 4 is a momentum-turning memento for Nelson.
"I thought his play throughout the game was the reason we got a chance to win," said Howard.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers wasn't happy with his team's execution or energy, but as a former point guard he had to tip his cap to Nelson.
"Jameer Nelson, I thought, even though he only had 23 points, I thought he dominated the game, this entire game," said Rivers. "I thought he went wherever he wanted to on the floor, and I thought he made big plays for them."
Celtics players Paul Pierce and Glen "Big Baby" Davis said the Magic made an adjustment to get Nelson going, bringing the stocky guard off staggered picks, allowing him to pick up speed coming off the picks and choose his spots.
Pierce said defending Nelson off the double screen is going to be an adjustment for Game 5 tomorrow.
"We either fouled somebody or they scored on it every time down," said Pierce. "It's an adjustment we're going to have to make in practice and see if we can do better."
The unassuming Nelson would never say it, but it had to irk him a little bit, all the chatter and proclamations about Rondo being the best point guard in the playoffs. It was Nelson, and not Rondo, who came into this series averaging more than 20 points per game. It was Nelson, not Rondo, who had led his team to two consecutive sweeps. It was Nelson, not Rondo, who is a captain of the defending Eastern Conference champions. They've both made one All-Star game -- Nelson in 2009 and Rondo this season.
This is a point guard matchup, not a mismatch.
Last night, Rondo wasn't even the best point guard in his own building -- blame it on the Sports Illustrated cover jinx -- and the Celtics need to make this a one-time occurrence or they could be making more than one trip to the Magic Kingdom.
For the first time this postseason, Mr. Rondo has a legitimate challenger. It will be interesting to see how he responds in Game 5. In the past, such point guard duels have brought out Rondo's best -- think his head-to-head with Derrick Rose in last season's playoffs -- and the Celtics should hope that's the case now, because Nelson won't back down.
When the game's gifted young point guards are compared and debated, it's rare that you ever hear Nelson's name. It is always Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rondo, Russell Westbrook, and Derrick Rose. Even rookies Brandon Jennings and Stephen Curry get their due before Nelson.
But while all of those players, except Rondo, are sitting at home watching on TV, the overlooked Orlando point man put his game into overdrive and sent this series into extra time.
Point guard play could decide this series, which suddenly feels closer than 3-1 with the Magic heading home for Game 5 tomorrow and making bold statements. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, with all the subtly of a neon sign, talked about how somebody at some point is going to be down 3-0 and win a series, and guard J.J. Redick, in the ultimate indignity to Boston sports fans referenced the 2004 Red Sox as inspiration for Orlando.
"You never know what can happen. Maybe we will be like the Red Sox and come back against the Yankees. You never know," said Redick.
The only thing missing was Nelson, who is from Chester, Pa., making like Rasheed Wallace, and plopping on a Flyers cap.
The Celtics better watch it because Nelson, like his gaudy timepiece, just made a statement.
The beauty of Rajon Rondo's game is that it transcends mere numbers. You can't measure the sublime No. 9's game in integers and averages.
There is not a statistic yet invented that fully gives the measure of what a joy it has been to watch Rondo play this postseason. Yes, 17.4 points, an NBA-post-season leading 10.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game are telling, but they don't tell the story of Rondo's resplendence.
The reaction to his play does. When you've upstaged three of the NBA's biggest stars, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard, on the game's biggest stage that says more than any stat. When two of the greatest point guards to ever play the game, Bob Cousy and Magic Johnson, offer you their imprimatur, then your numbers are an afterthought. When you become the 24-year-old focal point of a championship contender with three future Hall of Famers on its roster, relabeling the Big Three the Core Four, then that's how your impact can be calculated.
Statistics have become the ultimate crutch in sports. Going by the numbers is viewed as an easy way to settle any athletic argument. Without sentiment or subjectivity, numbers don't lie, except they do sometimes with the Celtics' Promethean point guard prodigy, who will try to lead Boston to its second NBA Finals in three seasons tonight.
If you just perused the box score from the Celtics' 94-71 dismantling of the Magic in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night there is no way sitting there in black and white you could possibly comprehend the impact Rondo had on the game. His line looked solid, but nothing spectacular -- 11 points on 4 of 14 shooting, with 12 assists, 4 steals, 3 rebounds and 3 turnovers -- when his play was exactly that.
Numbers-wise it certainly wouldn't match up with his virtuoso performances against Cleveland in the previous round -- the Oscar Robertson-esque triple-double (29 points, 18 rebounds, 13 assists) or his franchise-record-tying 19 assists. Yet, it was equal in its brilliance, which is the sui generis genius of Rondo.
Boston sports fans might not want to hear this, but Rondo is like the Derek Jeter of the NBA in that numbers will never be equal up to his greatness. Jeter was always an easy target in the old Holy Trinity of Shortstops argument with Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra because he wasn't going to match their home run or RBI numbers.
Rondo may never match the regular-season numbers of Utah's Deron Williams, who has averaged more than 18 points and 10 assists per game in each of the past three seasons, and New Orleans' Chris Paul, who was hurt this year but the previous two seasons had topped 21 points and 11 assists per game.
Rondo averaged career-highs of 13.7 points and 9.8 assists this season, which pale in comparison to Williams and Paul, but Rondo doesn't. He is right there with them competing for the title of the game's best point guard, along with the ageless, yet defense-less, Steve Nash.
Let's go back to Saturday night. Rondo made four baskets. His first was that patented running, one-handed floater, his signature shot. Then he banked in a ridiculous, off-balance runner in the lane with J.J. Redick hanging all over him with 20.9 seconds left in the first quarter to give the Celtics a 16-point lead. Next, he used a Jedi mind trick on Magic center Martin Gortat, who inexplicably turned his head when Rondo turned his back to the basket briefly, and converted an old-fashioned 3-point play. Finally, there was the showpiece play of these playoffs. Rondo's astonishing loose ball lay-out and layup against Jason Williams, which has already become legendary.
There are few other players in the game that could put up 11 points and impact the game just as much as when they dropped 25 points the game before. There are few players that could have four field goals and be summoned to the podium postgame, recognized as the best player on the floor for either team and garnering post-game praise from Kevin Garnett.
"He's just showing the world what he's made of. The future is scary," said Garnett.
Indeed, it is. Pound for pound, Rondo is already among the greatest rebounding point guards ever, and he could get that "rebounding" qualifier removed and just be left with the rest.
Until further notice and a few more rings, Cousy is still unquestionably the greatest point guard in franchise history, but as sacrilegious as it sounds Rondo, in his fourth season and in search of his second NBA title, could make it close. He is not one to shrink from any challenge and his overflowing confidence could flood the Charles River.
The amazing aspect is that Rondo is angling for inclusion in the pantheon of point guards past and present without the presence of a reliable jump shot. He is getting there, and most importantly from a team standpoint is no longer gun-shy about shooting from outside of 12 feet. In fact, he has actually shot 40 percent (6 of 15) on 3-pointers in the playoffs after hitting just 17 all season. However, that perimeter weakness just makes his all-around play even more astonishing.
In a league with many outstanding point guards -- Paul, Williams, Nash, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Chauncey Billups, Brandon Jennings -- Rondo stands out.
If you need the reassurance of cold hard statistics to appreciate him, then focus on the fact he set franchise records for steals, leading the NBA at 2.33 per game, and assists this season. Talk about how he has upped his scoring, assists and rebound averages in the playoffs.
But you're kind of missing the point about a one of a kind point guard.
At this point the Orlando Magic should do us all a favor and act like Rashard Lewis when Big Baby Davis came barreling in for a layup in the second quarter last night -- simply get out of the way.
The Parishioners of the Parquet voiced their desire clearly. With 10 minutes and 23 seconds left in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals -- it had long since been over -- the TD Garden crowd delivered a boisterous "Beat LA" chant.
They were merely parroting their West Coast counterparts who filled Staples Center with a chorus of "We want Boston" during the Lakers' victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, with Lakers center Andrew Bynum joining in the chrous.
Everybody wants these two teams to meet, and the sooner the better.
The three-leaf clovers should be Game 4 closers, and you don't need to read Paul Pierce's Twitter account to know that. The Celtics, up 3-0 after last night's 94-71 demolition of Dwight Howard and the disappearing Magic, won't need a broom to usher in Orlando's offseason. They can finish these guys tomorrow night with a feather-duster, so disjointed and dispirited are the defending Eastern Conference champion Magic.
The game's two most decorated franchises -- and the last two NBA champions -- are clearly the two best teams in basketball right now, and their Finals meeting could be what the NBA playoffs have not been -- scintillating. The Lakers and Celtics can only be measured and tested by each other. They're the varsity. Everyone else is JV.
What the Celtics did last night was impressive. They obliterated Orlando with indomitable will, impeccable execution, and undeniable effort. Rajon Rondo, who played the most memorable 4 of 14 shooting game in playoff history, outhustled Jason Williams in the second quarter, hurling himself to the floor to get a loose ball and then scrambling up to score on J-Will.
it is now a part of Celtic lore.
The Celtics won their sixth straight playoff game last night and did so by putting six players in double figures, led by Davis, who had 17.
What the Celtics are doing in the playoffs is impressive. Showing balance worthy of the Cirque du Soleil, the Celtics have not had a player lead the team in scoring in consecutive games in the playoffs. They have four players: Paul Pierce (17.4 points per game), Rondo (17.3), Ray Allen (16.7) and Kevin Garnett (15.7) averaging in double-figures. Their defense has been 2008-esque, as Orlando is shooting 39.4 percent in this series and the Green have held opponents to a 43.2 percent field goal percentage in the postseason.
But not to be outdone, the Lakers, who face the Phoenix Suns today in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, have won eight consecutive playoff games. Their last playoff defeat came nearly a month ago when they lost to Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder by 21 points on April 24. The Lakers have five players averaging in double-figures,
In Game 2 of the Phoenix series, Kobe Bryant and his supporting cast put on a clinic with the triangle offense, and the Suns couldn't have defended them with help from the Pentagon. The Lakers also put six players in double figures and shot an incredible 57.7 percent from the floor.
His Kobeness and Co. are the best shooting team in the playoffs at 48.1 percent. But defense wins championships, you and Celtics coach Doc Rivers say. That's A-OK with LA. The Lakers are holding teams to 42.6 percent from the field in the playoffs.
Celtics guard Ray Allen said last night when asked about the current Celtics compared to the 2008 title team: "I believe this team is deeper." The defending NBA champion Lakers can say they're a better team than the version that lost to the Celtics in six games two years ago.
That should translate to a better series, hopefully a seven-game slugfest with the Ali and Frazier of the NBA.
A rejuvenated Garnett vs. an in-his-prime Pau Gasol, who was bullied, intimidated and abused by KG in the '08 series. The courteous and cerebral Spaniard still recoils in annoyance when asked about his toughness. Kobe aiming for revenge on Paul Pierce, who outplayed him when the Celtics won Banner No. 17 and then made sure he told the whole world about it.
Or if Pierce is matched up with long-time nemesis Ron Artest, then it's Kobe vs. Ray Allen. You can be sure Allen didn't take too kindly to Kobe's comments about his elevator going to the 12th floor and Allen's only going to the seventh after Bryant elevated over Allen for the game-winner during the team's meeting at the Garden on Jan. 31.
How about the poor officials who are going to have to try to contain the argumentative Artest and recalcitrant Rasheed Wallace in the same series on the same floor at the same time? If Joey Crawford works this series then the games might get a mature audiences only rating.
Kendrick Perkins battles Shaq and Dwight Howard and then gets Bynum, whom many forget was out with a knee injury when the teams played back in 2008. Of course the perpetually-banged up Bynum is dealing with a knee injury now too, but he is a 7-foot factor.
You also know that if master motivator/manipulator Phil Jackson is going to take shots at Steve Nash then he's going to try to get inside the head of Rondo. It's Jackson's best defense, since Derek Fisher and Jordan Famar have no shot to contain Rondo, who is 10 times the player he was two years ago and whom Magic Johnson anointed as the best Celtics player on this team.
The mere thought of a 12th Celtics-Lakers Finals matchup is enough to get any hardcore hoops reaching for the oxygen like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
What? The Celtics still have to play Orlando tomorrow. Too bad. The Magic are a four-gone conclusion. Bring on the Lakers.
The Celtics were right: the regular season doesn't matter.
That was apparent watching the Green upend the Orlando Magic, 92-88 in Game 1 of the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals yesterday afternoon, followed by the eighth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers blanking the seventh-seeded Montreal Canadiens, 6-0, in Game 1 of the NHL's Eastern Conference Finals.
The Celtics made us suffer through their somnambulant regular season and now they look quite capable of capturing their second NBA title in three seasons. In fact, they look like the best team in basketball.
Philadelphia's story started when they had to win a shootout on the final day of the regular season to even make the NHL playoffs. The fortuitous Flyers, who iced hockey season in the Hub in historic fashion by rallying from a 3-0 series deficit, now look like the 2004 Red Sox on skates.
We should all be so lucky as to have jobs where a disappointing day-to-day performance for six months can be rendered irrelevant by a month of distinguished work, to enjoy gainful employment where you can simply save your best for last.
Among the many enviable trappings of being a professionals athlete is the chance to wipe the slate clean come playoff time. Very few, if any other, vocations offer this opportunity.
Can you imagine if investment bankers could merely tell their customers to just wait until the playoffs and their portfolios will perform as advertised? Or if police officers could say don't worry about the crime rate it will decline when the playoffs roll around? How about auto mechanics saying they're going to wait until the playoffs to really fix that knocking noise your car is making?
Wouldn't happen, and that's why the NBA and NHL playoffs are a glaring reminder that those two sports have tedious, meaningless 82-game regular seasons, six months of playoff prologue signifying nothing. It is all an elaborate, revenue-generating ruse, and the fans are the ones getting jobbed.
Now, the regular season is significant in the NFL and major league baseball. In the NFL, every game is one 16th of your season. One loss can keep you from the playoffs. In baseball, the 162-game odyssey has more twists and turns than Storrow Drive, but it weeds out the four contenders in the American League and National League from the pretenders and often goes down to wire.
In the NBA and NHL, more than half of the 30 teams in each league (16) make the playoffs. A team like the Celtics can simply put it in cruise control, sit back and wait for the real games to began. Fourth seed, first seed, what's the difference? We're in.
"A lot of people would say with the talent the Celtics have they've underachieved this year. I don't really see it that way," Celtics general manager Danny Ainge said 10 days ago. "Our objectives were always to be ready for the playoffs."
The Celtics started their playoff run a month ago today with an 85-76 victory over the Miami Heat. They have been a different team than the injured and disinterested one we saw during the regular season, which in fairness was still a 50-win campaign. Doc Rivers' rejuvenated bunch is 9-3 in 12 playoff games.
During the regular season they beat the Cavaliers and the Magic a total of three times in eight tries. They've already beaten the two top-seeded Eastern Conference foes five times in seven games in the playoffs.
Routinely outrebounded during the regular season, during which they finished 29th among 30 clubs in rebounding, the Celtics are no longer bored by the regular season, so they're boarding. Boston has upped its rebounding average in the postseason to 39.6, a full rebound better than the regular season, and more importantly has outrebounded its opponents during the playoffs, 39.6 to 38.6.
The posterchild for the postseason is Rasheed Wallace. Say what you will about 'Sheed's indolent, disinterested regular season act, but ball don't lie and neither does he. Give him credit because at least he was honest all along about the playoffs being all that mattered.
The workmanlike Wallace who dove into the stands in Game 6 against Cleveland and scored 13 points and the savvy veteran who played outstanding defense on Dwight Howard yesterday while scoring 13 points bear little resemblance to the player we saw during the regular season.
Unlike the rest of us, 'Sheed figured out a long time ago when it counts and when it doesn't.
"One thing I'll say about Rasheed and he said it throughout, 'Doesn't matter what I do during the regular season; I will be judged for what I do in the playoffs.' I didn't want him to take that literally throughout the season," said Rivers. "But he's been terrific. He's a knowledgeable big who has a lot of game."
There was no clearer example of how the Celtics have become a different team in the playoffs than yesterday's game.
The last time the Celtics were in Orlando prior to yesterday was Jan. 28. They blew a 16-point second half lead and lost the game as Rashard Lewis blew by Kevin Garnett on the baseline for the game-winning bucket, Lewis's 23d points of the night.
Yesterday, the Celtics built a 20-point lead and withstood a furious Orlando rally. KG actually came racing out from the paint to chase Lewis off a 3-pointer in the corner in the fourth quarter. Garnett held Lewis to just 2 of 10 shooting from the field and 0 of 6 from beyond the arc.
Different time. Different team.
As Mike Brown, coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers (at least for now), said in trying to explain how the Celtics, whose championship reign had been all but eulogized prior to the postseason, buzzsawed his 61-win Cavs in six games: "The regular season is a lot different than the postseason."
Amen to that.
There is a sign underneath the clock in the Celtics locker room that reads, "Individuals win games, but teams win titles."
With all due respect to Paul Pierce, that is The Truth. Just ask Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, two of the game's best players who are watching the playoffs at home because the Green Machine kicked into gear and kicked their superstar derriere, D-Wade disposed of in five games and LeBron and Cleveland leaving in six.
The Celtics put the kibosh on Cleveland's season and possibly LeBron's Cavaliers career with a satisfying, series-clinching 94-85 win at the Garden. It was a team-effort and the better team won for the second series in a row.
I submit as evidence for the team theory the fact that the Celtics' best scorer and brightest star, Pierce, shot 34.5 percent in the series, only topping 20 points once in six games, and that Ray Allen was 0 for 5 from 3-point range last night and had 8 points. Either of those scenarios would be doomsday for most NBA clubs, yet the Celtics dominated this series, winning all four of their games by at least nine points.
They won with the Core Four -- Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Allen and Rajon Rondo -- clicking, and Tony Allen, Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Rasheed Wallace, who came up with hustle plays and hit huge threes in the second half last night, contributing.
This wasn't just a victory for the Celtics, it was a win for the sport of basketball. It sends the message that while individual excellence is celebrated, collective and cohesive greatness is rewarded. That's a message that seems to get lost often times in the NBA, where the Cavaliers don't play the Lakers, but LeBron goes against Kobe.
Part of that is a convenient marketing message for the league because it's easier to relate to a person -- or more accurately a persona -- than a piece of laundry. But you get the sense that over the years, it has seeped down into the core of the game in this country, turning basketball into one big isolation play, on and off the court. The soul of the sport debased in the process, opening the door for its cacophony of critics.
Contrary to what the NBA would have you believe at times, basketball is not an individual sport. It is about the beauty of selfless play, not self-promotion or self-aggrandizement. Team basketball played at basketball's highest level is a sight to behold.
It's good to know that old-fashioned basketball, the kind that Red Auerbach would have signed off on, still counts for something in the NBA when the games really count.
"We talked about throughout the series individually we're not going to beat them; we can't," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "But team-wise, together, if we're all on the same page ... you know running the same formula, then we had a chance. I thought overall we stayed in that, and that's why we won the series."
Isolated is how James must have felt last night as he realized his one-man show was closing (although it could end up on Broadway). LeBron had a triple-double, but was a singular presence for the Cavs, who folded up faster than a lawn chair.
Mo Williams dropped 20 points in the first half, then had one hoop the rest of the way and went scoreless in the fourth quarter. Antawn Jamison, the Cavaliers' big mid-season acquisition, was supposed to be the missing piece. Instead, he was just plain missing. Jamison melted like a Popsicle on a warm summer day in this series, leaving a puddle on the parquet. He was abused by KG all series long (Garnett averaged 18.8 points per game in the series) and never found any rhythm on offense, as evidenced by his 2-for-10, 5-point performance with the Cavs' season on the line.
The Cavaliers concept was all wrong. They put too much on LeBron. He's their best passer, their best scorer, their best defender.
It was interesting that after the game, LeBron referenced his "team" when talking about his free agency decision. He didn't mean the Cavaliers franchise or teammates like Williams or Jamario Moon. No, he meant his agent, his family, his sycophant friends, his marketing mavens, his personal handlers. That's the only team that James feels he can count on.
He's right. That's the biggest reason the Summer of LeBron started in the spring.
The Celtics, meanwhile, move on to face the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. Orlando hasn't dropped a game yet in the playoffs, pulling off a pair of sweeps over Charlotte and Atlanta.
This one is going to be a little different for the Celtics. Yes, the Magic have Superman, Dwight Howard, who like Wade and James is a larger-than-life NBA character, but they're far from a one-man operation.
This will be the first time in the playoffs that the Celtics are confronted with a bona fide T-E-A-M. The Magic have five players averaging in double figures this postseason -- one more than the Celtics -- and Howard is only the team's fourth-leading scorer in the playoffs at 15.4 points per game, trailing Jameer Nelson (20.5), Vince Carter (16.9) and Rashard Lewis (16.4).
The Celtics went 1-3 against Orlando in the regular season, with the lone win coming on Christmas Day, sans Pierce. For all the talk about the Celtics not having KG when they were eliminated by the Magic last season, it's easy to forget that the Magic didn't have Nelson at point guard. He will not shrink from Rondo, who was sublime against Cleveland, averaging a team-high 20.7 points per game, while dishing out 11.8 assists per game.
Now, both teams are at full strength and it should be a heck of a series.
One thing is for sure -- the best team is going to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
These two teams are not only fighting to advance in the playoffs, they're fighting to remain intact. The loser of this series is ripe for revisions. Either the Chosen One will choose to play elsewhere or the Big Three will lose a member.
Leading three games to two in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Celtics have a chance to deliver the finishing blow to the Cavaliers and the opening salvo in the Summer of LeBron. If the top-seeded Cavs bow out in the second round then the King will have a new court next season, one he feels gives him a better chance of being crowned NBA champion.
LeBron has been discussed, dissected and dissed across every media platform since his apathetic and just plain pathetic 3-for-14 performance in Game 5, which ended with Cleveland fans not defending the veracity of Bron-Bron's boo-boo, instead booing him and his teammates off the court at the Q, which one Cleveland Plain-Dealer writer referred to as The Quit.
You don't have to tell Boston sports fans how quickly the fortunes and fates in a series can change -- how about those Philadelphia Flyers, eh? -- and while all the scrutiny is focused on the end of an era for the Cavaliers there remains the possibility that tonight's game at TD Garden could be the last time we see the Big Three together on the hallowed parquet.
If the Celtics lose Game 6 tonight on their homecourt to the Cavs, then they have to go back to Cleveland for Game 7 on Sunday. It would be a Yao Ming-sized task to win three times on Cleveland's home court. It's certainly not impossible with the way the Celtics have played on the road in this series, but between the referees and LeBron it's definitely not a favorable scenario.
"[Tonight] it's the biggest game of the series, close-out game," said the Celtics' Glen Davis. "People don't realize how much we have on our back. If we lose this game at home we have to go back to Cleveland. Even though we know we can win there, that's their house. That's their environment. It's a tough situation. It's hard to win three games on the road ... we got to win this game, and we got to show the fans that we can protect home court."
If Boston blew a 3-2 lead to be eliminated in the second round for the second consecutive year, then there would be both calls and legitimate cause to look at breaking up Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and retooling the team around Rajon Rondo, who has been the most dynamic player in this series, LeBron included.
History says that aging champions like the Celtics don't get surpassed by younger teams, keep the same core together and suddenly surge back to Eastern Conference eminence. The Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics in the late 1980s and the Bad Boys Pistons in the early 1990s were both overtaken and never returned to an NBA Finals.
Celtics executive director of basketball operations/general manager Danny Ainge is not the type to just sit around and watch his team decline. He would do something about it. Ainge explored deals for Allen at the trading deadline. He didn't see any suitable swaps, so he wisely kept the ageless Allen in tow and hoped his team would turn it around when it counted most.
That has happened. Consider the switch flipped, but understand that not even the Celtics, who spouted off all season about the relative unimportance of the 82-game regular season, were sure they would congeal when it counted.
"It's tough. It's tough. You don't know what's going to happen," said Davis. "We didn't know we were going to play like this. We knew we capable of it, but we didn't know that we were going to gel this well in the playoffs."
With two years left on his deal at a total of $40 million, Garnett isn't going anywhere. His contract is untradeable and his importance to the team as a vocal leader, defensive anchor and frontcourt offensive threat is undeniable. Garnett has been outstanding in this series, averaging 18.2 points per game and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 50.6 percent from the field.
Allen will be a free agent after this season. He is the most disposable of the Big Three, simply because of his contract situation. But he is also the most durable. Shooting is always en vogue in the NBA and that's something Sugar Ray will be able to do when he's 50. There will be interest in Allen in the offseason, and it will be interesting to see how much of a pay cut he's willing to take from his $19.7 million salary this season to stay in Boston.
The most desirable member of the Big Three for other teams would be Paul Pierce. He's the youngest (turns 33 in October) and the best overall player. He is also the one who might age the worst. This has been a tough series for Pierce, with the unenviable task of having to bang with LeBron every night, but he finally delivered on the offensive end in Game 5.
Ownership will not want to move Pierce, who has one year left on his contract at $21.2 million but can opt-out like James this summer, under any scenario. However, if this series fell apart and the Celtics couldn't agree on a long-term deal with Pierce, Ainge would be compelled to at least listen to offers for Pierce. Remember, five years ago Ainge entertained moving Pierce for the opportunity to draft Chris Paul.
KG was right; the Celtics do have to play tonight like it's the last game of the series. Because if they don't it might be the last game this current team plays together at the Garden.
Let’s officially put a moratorium on discussion of The Elbow. It will not be a factor in this series. Cavaliers star LeBron James and his much discussed and dissected joint are a nonstarter and a nonstory from now on. Agreed? There is no way that after the hurtin’ James put on the Celtics last night he or Cleveland can point to The Elbow as a caveat for the Cavaliers in this series.
It would be nothing less than the height of hoops hypocrisy to do so, especially after the LeBrons embarrassed the Celtics, 124-95, in Game 3 of this Eastern Conference semifinals series to take a 2-1 lead. No one had ever handed the Celtics a worse home playoff loss, not Michael Jordan, not Julius Erving, not Wilt Chamberlain. None of them had hip-hop and R&B royalty on hand to watch such a rout either — James had pal Jay-Z and Beyonce cheering him on from the first row, with the rapper sporting camouflage shorts.
Jay-Z has a song called “Takeover,’’ and that’s exactly what James did.
Nothing could camouflage the fact that ’Bron wasn’t hampered by the bad ’bow. Forget another MRI, all you had to do was watch the first quarter and look at the final stat sheet. It was a typical transcendent performance from King James, who turned the TD Garden into his court with 38 points (on 14 of 22 from the field), 8 rebounds and 7 assists in 39 minutes of work.
“I think he’s healthy,’’ deadpanned Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “His elbow looked very good tonight, so enough with the elbow injury. I think he’s healthy now, and now we can go ahead and everybody can just focus on basketball.
“He was great. We knew coming into the game. We told our guys that we knew that he was going to grab the ball and he’s going to attack all game, especially early to get his guys involved. He did it, but I didn’t think we gave him any resistance. I mean he was playing H-O-R-S-E.’’
Actually, he was playing a different five-letter shooting game, E-L-B-O-W, and the Celtics couldn’t match him or the Cavs. Boston never led in this game.
After a passive performance during the Celtics’ 104-86 victory Monday night (doesn’t that feel like a different playoff series by now?) during which James only took 15 shots, some questioned whether LeBron’s boo-boo was preventing him from taking over. The injury seemed to be affecting him as much mentally as physically. Not anymore.
He came out from the opening tip determined to apply some elbow grease to the Celtics and all it took was a quarter for him to make it clear the Celtics weren’t winning this game.
“Aggression was my mind-set,’’ said James. “It was my mind-set to come out really aggressive and just dictate tempo from the start, and I was able to do that. I think rest helped me.’’
James missed his first shot of the game, a jumper, and then hit six in a row. Not even a flagrant foul by Kendrick Perkins on a fast break could slow him down. He calmly sank the free throws and then canned a 22-footer. Of LeBron’s six-pack of baskets, all but one was a jump shot, an indication that The Elbow was having about as much effect on James’s jumper as the debt crisis in Greece is having on his wallet.
Not that he shied away from going to the rim. There was the pretty finger-roll-plus-1 to give the Cavs a 17-point lead in the first quarter and then there was the contest-ready slam dunk he powered home to give Cleveland a 34-15 advantage.
LeBron launched 10 shots in the opening quarter, hitting eight, and had 21 points to show for it, just 3 fewer than he had total in Game 2.
James took it easy in the second quarter, scoring just 7 points, but he had a big block of a Big Baby Davis shot and at the half he had 28 points and his team led by 22.
“He’s our leader,’’ said Cavaliers forward Antawn Jamison. “He was really focused coming into today and shootaround. When he goes, we go. He set the tone early on both ends.’’
For all the talk about James’s incredible offensive performance, he has shut down Paul Pierce on the defensive end in this series. Pierce had 11 points last night and is averaging 12.7 in the series on, yuck, 31 percent shooting.
“We’re not doing anything special on Paul,’’ said Cleveland coach Mike Brown. “LeBron has had that assignment for most of the series.’’
If Brown was concerned about James’s elbow, maybe we should start calling it the “L-bow’’, since James didn’t come out until there was 5:41 left in the fourth quarter and his team was trouncing the Celtics by 30 (113-83).
James said his staying in was dictated by the flow of the game and not the two-time defending MVP sending a message to the former champs.
Perhaps, but one communique the King delivered needed no words. He is fine.
So, let’s stop with the knee-jerk reactions to The Elbow.
“I think it was much bigger than what it really was,’’ said James. “That’s what happens sometimes on the whole media circuit. But [the talk] didn’t bother me at all. I wasn’t tired of hearing about it. I didn’t focus in on it that much.’’
Neither should we.
Jim Davis / Globe Staff
If you're a Celtics fan you better hope that coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers is operating on the Boston bench next season.
The one consistent aspect that the team could count on in an inconsistent season is the sanguine Celtics coach. His upbeat attitude belies the wear and tear of a tumultuous season that is furrowed across his face each game. Like his bespoke suits, Rivers is custom-made for this Celtics team, which enters tonight's Game 3 at the Garden tied 1-1 with Cleveland Cavaliers in the teams Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Rivers is part psychologist, part strategist, part mentor, part motivator and part ringmaster. He is attuned to his team in a league that tunes out coaches on a regular basis and where messages come with an expiration date.
Rajon Rondo is the floor general for the Green, but there is no doubt that it is Rivers, in his sixth season as the team's 16th coach, that has facilitated the Celtics to the point of return from a disappointing regular season and to the point where they have a real chance in this series against the Cavaliers.
There was a Boston Herald report last month that Rivers, who has one year remaining on his contract, was considering hanging up his whistle and heading home to Orlando. Rivers downplayed the report, and Celtics executive director of basketball operations/general manager Danny Ainge sidestepped the question today, saying he is planning on Rivers returning and hopes he does.
He'd better. There are not too many coaches who could handle this team. The 48-year-old Rivers won the NBA's Coach of the Year honors with the Orlando Magic in 2000, but it's doubtful he's ever done a better coaching job than this season.
The Celtics got off to a 23-5 start followed by four months of .500 basketball (27-27) with injuries to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce troubling them in between.
Yet Rivers has somehow coaxed a team beset by aches, temperamental talents and regular-season ennui to play its best basketball when it matters the most.
"Doc is always the leader of the team, through the good and the bad," said Ainge. "The players aren't going off on their own and doing their own thing. They're staying together. They're fighting through thick and thin. I think as a result of the injuries and as a result of the team not really being able to reach Doc's expectations during the regular season that's always a difficult challenge. Then you have a rising young player like Rajon, but there are a lot of little things and every team has those. ...That's why I would just say coaching is hard. Doc is a great coach."
That's not recognition Rivers often gets, despite winning 66, 62 and 50 games the last three seasons. He's rarely if ever mentioned in the same breath as Phil Jackson, or Gregg Popovich or one of his former coaches during his 13-year NBA career, Larry Brown. As recently as three years ago, when the Celtics were in the midst of a 24-58 season that included a franchise-record 18-game losing streak, people were saying Rivers was a better broadcaster than bench boss.
When the Celtics won the NBA title two years ago, most of the credit went to Ainge for assembling the Big Three. But someone had to mold those players and personalities together.
Ainge said that was a draining season for Rivers and acknowledged this one has been as well with a team that played to its potential in spurts.
"As a coach you just live that," said Ainge, who coached the Phoenix Suns for three-plus seasons. "You think about it after the game. You're thinking about it at dinner that night, on the plane ride home, you stay awake at night thinking why are we not playing up to our capabilities? How come we're showing spurts of it, but we're not able to sustain?
"Then when you're not living up to expectations other things creep in. Then personalities become stronger, and not only does the media and the fans have their own ideas of how we can win, so does the general manager, so does the star player. ...So, that is hard on a coach."
It would have been easy for this Celtics team to implode under the weight of its own outsized egos and expectations, but Rivers wouldn't let it.
He understands that Allen has to get his shots, Pierce has to get his way and that sometimes you have to get out of KG's way. He knows that Wallace and Rondo have to believe that what they're being asked to do was their idea and not someone else's.
"I think Doc did a great job," said Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. "I know it's hard for him with all the veterans on the team, all the egos that we have on this team. I think Doc does a great job of picking and choosing when can he attack his superstars and when he can't. When he let's them get away with stuff, and when he has to call them out on things. I think Doc has the toughest job, especially with this team, so I think he did a great job of handling all of us."
Rivers told us in 2006-07 he could coach. He was right. He told us this team would get it together at some point. He was right.
Even Ainge, who said the team's objective was always to peak in the playoffs, admitted he had some doubts about whether the team would do so. But he never doubted his coach.
He knows better.
"I had doubts like everybody whether we would [peak]," said Ainge. "I knew what we were capable of doing, but I never had doubts that Doc could. My doubts have never been whether somebody else could do better than what he is doing."
That's because somebody else couldn't.
Peticca: Christopher, the Cavaliers are probably feeling pretty good about this series right now, because a lot of things went wrong for them for a major portion of the game and they still won.
Mo Williams was helpless trying to keep Rajon Rondo out of the paint in the
first half. Antawn Jamison had a tough time trying to stop Kevin Garnett from getting
the ball wherever he wanted to. Jamison never got anything going offensively and
the biggest numbers Shaquille O'Neal put up for most of the game were fouls and
missed shots inside 5 feet.
Maybe most disconcerting was the always looming shadow of The Elbow. LeBron took
just three jump shots -- one of them simply trying to beat the shot clock -- in the first
three quarters, and one had to wonder if the long list of Cleveland sports infamies was
about to grow an appendage.
Let alone being down by double figures late in the game. Yet, the Cavs won, and when
they face some adversity as this series goes on or in another series if they advance,
they can draw on this experience of finding a way to beat a good team when they
seemed on the verge of losing big.
The Celtics are such an accomplished veteran team. How do you think this affects them?
Gasper: This felt like the Celtics Earnest Byner-ed away a major opportunity and could turn out to be the defining game of the series. The Green are going to have to win one game in Cleveland to win the series, and having an 11-point lead midway through the third quarter might be the best shot they get. Through the first 30 minutes the Celtics were following a blueprint so masterful it looked like it was the work of Frank Gehry -- make someone other than LeBron beat you, bottle up Mo Williams and let Rajon Rondo slice and dice the Cavaliers defense like a Ginsu.
Then they tossed that blueprint into Lake Erie and started funneling the ball to Paul Pierce and jacking up too many jumps shots. They ended up wilting under the pressure of the Cavs and the Q.
Boston scored just 39 points in the second half and shot 35 percent from the field. The Big Three had one fewer field goal in the fourth quarter than it has members. Ouch.
Doc Rivers might have to think about taking Pierce off of LeBron. It worked two years ago, but NBA years are like dog years at Pierce's age (32). Taking on King James taxed him too much and cost the Celtics on the offensive end. Pierce is supposed to be this team's go-to scorer, and he came up completely empty in the fourth quarter and was so gassed then LeBron used him as a turnstile down the stretch on the way to a 35-point night (surprise, surprise). Now, do you believe this LeBron elbow business is bunk?
Peticca: Chris, I'll resist the temptation to say anything about Bill Buckner, who like Byner, had a terrific all-around career.
Anyway, the Cavs feel they had a lot to do with the Celtics offense going dry after the midpoint of the third quarter. Especially big was that Anthony Parker picked up Rondo and calmed him down a bit. It didn't hurt the Cavs that Rondo had to sit for a while with four fouls.
The Cavs would say, too, that Pierce's meltdown was more a result of LeBron's defense. He can be a shut-down guy when he wants to. That brings us to the elbow.
I think it is legitimately ailing. James took just three jump shots in the first three quarters, and one was a desperate attempt to try to beat the shot clock. Then in the fourth quarter, he took six jumpers or so, and swished a couple 3's. That eased the minds of a lot of Cavs fans.
So, what do you do about covering LeBron if it's not Pierce? More Tony Allen or Marquis Daniels, and who loses minutes for the Celtics in that case?
Gasper: On LeBron's elbow, Mike, I'm only going to say what he said to TNT's David Aldridge after Game 1, that neither he nor the team makes excuses. The elbow wasn't too sore to risk banging it in a celebratory chest-bump after he canned the game-sealing 3-pointer. Me thinks the King is a little bit of a drama queen at times.
That was a nice coaching move by Mike Brown to put Parker on Rondo, but Rondo was still getting into the paint. He just stopped looking for his own shot. Parker can't check Rondo. There is no one on the Cavs' roster other than LeBron that can do so.
Peticca: Chris, the thing is, neither team can be all that disappointed by Game 1. For the Cavs, after all, they won. They did so with a lot of things going wrong for a long time. Like you say, Rondo is the biggest matchup advantage the Celtics have. I do wonder, though, how much he can keep going to the hoop, taking hits and landing hard on his back. That might wear on him.
It looked like the only advantage the Cavs had in the Jamison-Garnett matchup was Garnett having to go out to guard him. I know that matters, but it remains to be seen if Jamison can get some offense going against Garnett -- always a possibility, of course, because of LeBron's playmaking.
Jamison has to get help when Garnett gets the ball in the post, and Garnett can probably face up and get shots over him all night. Garnett should have been something like 13-of-20 instead 9-of-20.
Delonte West was outstanding off the bench, like Anderson Varejao. They gave much more than the stats show. J.J. Hickson struggled on defense and the boards, but he did negate some of that with aggressive offense. Who's going to show up off the Celitcs' bench? Rasheed Wallace looks finished.
Gasper: Mike, I do think the Celtics can take heart in the fact that they were able to control the play against Cleveland at home for almost three quarters, and still had a chance to win down the stretch, even though they got nothing from their best scorer, Pierce. KG was very active, and has been lethal of late with his step-out jumper.
Rondo isn't going to shy away from any contact or anyone. He has jawed at Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul and tried to dunk on Dwyane Wade last series. I think one key for the Celtics is they need to get more out of their bench. They were outscored 26-12 in Game 1. The bigger issue is that Garnett can't play 39 or 40 minutes a night, every night at this stage of his career and Pierce needs some time away from checking LeBron.
Turnovers were an issue and Cleveland's defense doesn't leave much margin for error, but Kendrick Perkins should have corralled that Rondo pass. You have to make that play in a close game.
Peticca: Chris, there's a number of things you mention that have to give the Celtics some hope. For the Cavs, it's pretty simple, I think. They can play a lot better. I don't know if the Celtics can come close to sustaining for 48 minutes what they did for 30 minutes. So, I think it's the Cavs going up by two games. And, I think the fans at the Q are getting better and better at sensing when their team needs a lift. Cavs, 2-0. What do you say?
Gasper: The Celtics kept telling us they'd turn it on when it really counts. Well, they did in Game 1, and it wasn't enough. Now, what?
I think the opening Cleveland leg of the series might be like the Floyd Mayweather-Shane Mosley fight. Like Mosley, the Celtics were able to get their younger challenger reeling with a big right hand early, but couldn't sustain things. I think the Celtics are coming back to the Garden staring at a 2-0 deficit after tonight, but with the belief that they can rattle the Cavs. But the Cavs may have taken Boston's best shot. That's a scary thought for Celtics fans.
Game 2, Round 2 tonight. It should be fun. Make sure LeBron doesn't forget his elbow pad, Mike.
Gasper: 'Bron, 'Bron has a boo-boo, boohoo, Cavaliers fans.
Funny that there were no Witnesses to this injury. Maybe James strained his elbow reaching for the back of his head to let Kevin Garnett and Co., know that he was brushing off the Celtics' win over the Cavs at TD Garden four weeks ago.
I'm sure James's elbow will be well enough to lift up that second straight MVP trophy for all to see, when commissioner David Stern presents it to him on Sunday night at the Q. Sounds like the Cleveland excuse making has started before the series with the Celtics does.
All antagonism aside, nobody in Boston is buying that LeBron James will be any less than the transcendent player who tortured the Celtics this season to the tune of 36.5 points, 8.3 assists and 6.5 rebounds. There is a better chance that the Indians (what did the Tribe ever do to you America?) really are the most hated brand in baseball, more despised than the Sox and Yankees, than there is of King James being diminished by his ailing elbow.
Strained elbow, bone bruise, it doesn't matter. He'll just slap a sleeve on his arm and be who he is -- the single most unstoppable force in the NBA and a bona fide Celtic killer.
Confession Cleveland: I enjoy watching LeBron play. It's sports karma that the Cavaliers, who were tormented by Michael Jordan and the Bulls all those years, now have an MJ-like figure of their own. He is athletic, dynamic and unselfish. He plays the right way, except for when it comes to complaining about injuries and fouls.
That is actually when he most resembles another MJ, one Earvin "Magic" Johnson, another legendary player/complainer. Still, I'll enjoy watching James work in this series, and if he wants to shoot lefthanded, well, he'll probably still score 30 and the Celtics will take it.
Because this series isn't going to be decided by LeBron James or Boston's Big Three of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, who are as healthy as they've been all season. It's going to be decided by what Antawn Jamision and Mo Williams and Anderson "Sideshow Bob" Varejao do for the Cavaliers and what players like Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Glen "Big Baby" Davis (you guys remember him) do for the Green.
Seems like LeBron and the Cavaliers are creating some, ahem, elbow room in case they have another playoff flameout, and Cleveland goes yet another year without a major sports title. Trust me winning a major championship is pretty cool, you guys should really try it sometime.
So, if the Cavs lose Game 1 on their home floor on Saturday, James and the Cavaliers will start harping on his injured elbow. It's not easy being the favorite and having a built-in excuse softens the pressure.
Sorry, LeBron I don't need X-rays to see right through this injury.
What do you think, Mike?
Peticca: Hi, Chris. Of course, Cavs fans are nervous. They remember the disappointments of "Red Right 88," "The Drive," "The Fumble," "The Shot," and finally, Jose Mesa's meltdown in the 1997 World Series.
Tommy Heinsohn was still playing for the Celtics, if I recall, back in 1964, when the Browns gave Cleveland its last major title. Ted Williams had been retired for just four years.
Hockey? Don't know -- Cleveland had an NHL team for two years in the 70's. That's it.
So, nobody here wants "The Elbow" to nudge its way into such infamy. There's already been "The Foot." That was 1976, when the Cavs looked like the best team in the NBA until center Jim Chones broke his foot in the last practice before the Cavs-Celts conference finals.
Even though LeBron is known for milking the drama a little -- and it's probably good for the sport -- there is legitimate concern. What if it goes numb again with the series on the line in Game 7? That would be more cruel than the rats that opponents had to flee in the old Boston Garden locker room.
The hope is that the elbow will have little impact on LeBron's game, and the way he played in most of the Chicago series -- when it had already been ailing for a couple weeks -- provides optimism around here.
There is no doubt that we have seen some signs of aging from the Celtics' Big Three this year. The NBA odometers of the championship trio can't be rolled back, and during an uninspired regular season the minutes mileage showed its toll.
Kevin Garnett's knee creaked like the car door of a 1980s Dodge station wagon, and instead of aging like Diane Lane he got dunked on in the lane. Battered by his own aching knee (it had to be drained twice) and a sprained mid-foot, Paul Pierce, entering that Big Papi phase of his career where his body could suddenly break down, wasn't the dominant scorer we had become accustomed too. Ray Allen, the eldest, but also the most durable of the group, avoided the injury bug, but had a hard time defending younger, more athletic shooting guards.
Remember when Kobe Bryant, ailing left ankle and all, simply rose up over Allen for the game-winning jumper at the Garden back on Jan. 31? “Ray's athletic, but my elevator goes to the 12th floor, his stays at the seventh," said Bryant. "But I couldn’t get to the 12th floor today." He didn't have to.
History says the current Celtics at face value are not too aged to win an NBA title, and they're not too old to beat the Cavaliers. Not good enough, maybe, we'll see, but age shouldn't be used as an excuse against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals series, which starts tomorrow in Cleveland.
First off, the playoffs have clearly reinvigorated Garnett, 33, Pierce, 32, and Allen, 34. The advanced Celtics were able to advance easily in the first-round. They looked forever young in Boston's five-game brushoff of the Miami Heat, and they certainly looked spry enough to tangle with James and the Cavaliers, who aren't as precocious a bunch as perception would lead one to believe.
Going by the last day of the regular season (April 14), the average age of the Celtics' 12 players on the playoff roster is 29 years, 145 days years of age, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. For the Cavaliers, it's 28 years, 124 days.
Yeah, bruising LeBron, the Shaquille O'Neal of NBA swingmen, is 25, but some of the supporting cast members Cleveland is counting on to get a ring for the King are AARP members by NBA standards.
Hard to believe, but the actual Shaq is now 38. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is 34, going on 45. Antawn Jamison is actually the same age as Garnett, and turns 34 on June 12, less than a month after KG does. Big Baby Davis, all of 24 years old, actually is a baby next to these guys, and Rasheed Wallace, 35, is competing against contemporaries.
When the Celtics won Banner No. 17 two years ago the average age of the playoff-active dozen at the end of the regular season was 29 years, 46 days. Not that much of a difference.
The big difference is that Garnett, Pierce, and Allen were all in their late primes two years ago. Now, they're all just past their primes, or in Pierce's case they see the exiting prime sign just ahead.
However, ageism is our problem, not theirs. NBA annals say older teams are capable of making runs at a ring. The San Antonio Spurs won the title in 2007 with an active playoff roster that on the last day of the regular season averaged 30 years, 8 days. Perhaps more applicable to these Celtics were the 1997-98 Bulls whose average age was 31.7 and whose best three players were all 32 or older. Those Bulls won their third straight title with a 34-year-old Michael Jordan, a 32-year-old Scottie Pippen and a 36-year-old Dennis Rodman.
MJ is MJ though, a <em>sui generis</em> phenomenon.
What about the 1968-69 Celtics, who kept the balloons in the rafters of the Fabulous Forum by winning the title with a 35-year-old Sam Jones, a 34-year-old Bill Russell, and a 32-year-old Bailey Howell? Granted that group had a 28-year-old John Havlicek, the team's leading scorer, but the current Celtics' answer to Hondo in terms of a young game-changer is just one letter away -- Rondo.
Point guard Rajon Rondo and center Kendrick Perkins were still a little green two years ago when the Celtics returned to NBA eminence. Now, those guys are approaching their primes. Rondo, 24, is now an All-Star point guard and the most dynamic player in the series next to James. He is forcing you to consider the Big Three as the Fantastic Four. Perkins may be an old-school player and an old soul, but he's the same age as James.
Rondo and Perk are both younger and better than their Cleveland combatants and counterparts -- Cavs point guard Mo Williams (27) and big man Anderson "Sideshow Bob" Varejao (27). Both could have a major impact on the series with Cleveland. LeBron couldn't beat the Celtics all by himself two years ago. He's not going to do it now, either.
One other factor working in the favor of the allegedly elderly Big Three is that coach Doc Rivers worked hard all season to manage minutes, so they could be at their best now. Pierce averaged 34 minutes a game during the regular season. Garnett was at 29.9. The indefatigable Allen logged more than both, 35.2 minutes per game.
Allen's minutes have remained pretty much the same in the playoffs, but Pierce jumped up to more than 38 minutes and KG has seen his time increase to 35-plus minutes a night. More time has meant more production.
The bottom line is time stops for no one, and the Celtics' title window is closing fast. Maybe, LeBron and Co. will slam it shut.
However, while the hourglass doesn't exactly favor the Sons of Red Auerbach, it's not empty either.
Now, the playoffs really start, and we get to see just how good the Boston Celtics are and whether their underachieving regular season was playoff prologue or the epilogue to the end of the Big Three era.
Before this season started no one was using the Miami Heat as the measuring stick for Doc Rivers and the gang. While 70 wins was unrealistic, so was expecting the Celtics to be challenged in the first round of the playoffs by Dwyane Wade and a bunch of Tito Jacksons, as Wade's cell phone commercial comrade Charles Barkley referred to Wade's "supporting" cast earlier this season. It's safe to say that Michael Beasley and Jermaine O'Neal are not in Wade's Fave Five.
In some ways this was a no-win series for the Celtics, because there was nothing they could do against the Heat to prove that they're completely back to the team that opened the season 23-5. That's not their fault. However, the Celtics boosted confidence in their contender credentials by finishing off the Heat in five games, and it would have been a sweep if not for Wade's 46-point virtuoso turn on Sunday.
But projecting the progeny of the parquet against LeBron James and the Cavaliers is a whole different deal, folks.
Miami was a great matchup for the Celtics because they didn't have a low-post presence or a versatile, athletic power forward who can extend a defense from the perimeter and force Kevin Garnett to step out and defend. Those are two areas that really test the Celtics' defense, and the knee of KG, who averaged 15.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in this series and looked as healthy as he has since the start of the season. Unfortunately for the Celtics, those are two things that the Cavaliers have at their disposal, with Shaquille O'Neal at center and Antawn Jamison at the four.
Miami players not named Dwyane Wade shot a collective 38.4 percent from the field in the Eastern Conference first-round series. James will have a lot more help than that.
"It's going to be similar to Miami with a better cast," acknowledged Garnett. "They are playing great as a unit. Shaq seems to be thinner and fit. ... He looks very sharp."
So, do the Celtics. The 30-something Big Three of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen appear to be clicking on all cylinders at just the right time, and the Celtics defense might not resemble the '85 Bears, but at least it doesn't look like a slam-dunk contest is being held in the lane any more.
Pierce is back to elite scorer form again (19.6 points per game), and any questions about his health had to be answered by the fact he logged 46 minutes in the close-out contest, the most of any player.
Garnett was active on the boards, got to the free-throw line, and his step-out, face-up jumper was on the mark.
The ageless Allen made Danny Ainge look like a genius for not parting with him at the trade deadline. I was wrong, Ray, forgive me.
Despite having the Sisyphean task of defending D-Wade, he was actually the team's second-leading scorer against Miami (19.4 points per game) and shot a scorching 52.4 percent from the field. Allen was even better from beyond the arc, shooting 52.8 percent.
Allen changed the game last night with a 20-point second half (on 7 of 9 shooting) that started with a barrage of three 3-pointers in the third quarter in a span of 1:58 that helped the Celtics open up a 21-point lead. When the Heat cut the lead to three early in the fourth, Allen responded with a conventional 3-point play.
The Cleveland series may hinge not on the Big Three, but on their dynamic little point guard, Rajon Rondo.
Next to LeBron, Rondo is the most indispensable player in the Boston-Cleveland series. Proof of the latter, is that he averaged 42 minutes per game against Miami. Rondo fared well against the Cavs this season, averaging 14.8 points and 10.3 assists, both higher than his season averages. He'll have to fare even better for the Celtics to precipitate an early start to the Summer of LeBron.
Rondo came out in attack mode from the opening tip last night. He had had 8 points, 4 rebounds and two assists in the first quarter, and stuffed the stat sheet with 16 points, 12 assists, 8 rebounds, 4 steals and one indomitable will to win.
You have to love the fact that Rondo doesn't defer to anyone in the NBA, whether it's Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul or Wade, whom he woofed at last night heading into a timeout, shortly after trying to elevate over D-Wade only to have his shot blocked.
"Anytime Rondo is aggressive like that like you said it sets the tone for pretty much how we are going to be," said Garnett.
The biggest bugaboo in Rondo's game -- free-throw shooting -- has not been a problem in the playoffs. After shooting 62 percent during the regular season, Rondo made 83 percent of his freebies against the Heat.
Essentially, what the Celtics have been presented is a do-over of the 2009 playoffs, but with Garnett a go and Cleveland standing in for Orlando. The team is virtually identical because the additions of Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels, and Nate Robinson have had no impact.
Last year, the Celtics were ousted in the second round by Orlando in seven games. If that happens at the hands of Cleveland this year, then their run has run its course, and they're the 1991 Detroit Pistons, who coincidentally went 50-32, to LeBron's Michael Jordan.
We were hard on the Celtics because we expected so much of them, but now they're in a position to finally fulfill those expectations.
Bring on LeBron.
After the sixth-seeded Bruins deep-sixed the Buffalo Sabres last night, winning Game 6 to close out their first-round playoff series, you half expected Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask to make like Kevin Garnett and throw his goalie stick into the air, while screaming, "Anything is possible."
In a Bruins' season filled with injuries, inconsistency, offensive impotency and an ignominious response, or lack there of, to a crushing, concussion-dealing blow to their best forward, winning a playoff series certainly seemed like a cause for celebration, maybe even one of Mayor Thomas Menino's famed rolling rallies.
Except in the mind of the Finnish franchise goalie and a lot of his teammates, the Bruins, who have Zambonied the rough patches in their regular season with a fresh sheet of ice and a fresh start in the playoffs, defeating third-seeded Buffalo wasn't really an upset.
"We always believed," said winger Milan Lucic, who assisted on a pair of third period goals in Boston's 4-3 series-sealing win. "It was definitely a tough road this season, for sure. I think when we were sitting at 10th at that time of the season we had a couple of team meetings to talk about 'this is the time of year for us to turn things around.'
"We knew that we had a good group of guys in here that could make something out of this season. So, the way we finished the [regular] season we had a lot of confidence, and we were able to carry that on into this series."
Really, the major surprise isn't that the Bruins, who went 4-2 against the Sabres during the regular season, won their first round playoff series; it's that they have advanced before the Celtics, who tonight against Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat will try to make it two series clinchers in two nights on Causeway Street. Of course the Black and Gold had some help from the NBA schedule makers, who seem intent on having sports fans celebrate the Fourth of July with an NBA Finals game.
But Rask was right to say that the Bruins beating Buffalo shouldn't be deemed an upset, and that is what makes the Stanley Cup playoffs one of the most enjoyable and unique postseasons in all of sports. Lower-seeded clubs toppling higher-seeded teams is a much a part of the playoffs as the post-series handshake line.
"Going into the playoffs anything can happen," said Rask. "I don't think it's an upset. I thought we played a good game. Look at our guys. We played good defense and got those chances, and you know anything can happen."
Especially in the chase for Lord Stanley's silver chalice.
The Bruins won the series because Rask (2.18 goals against and .927 save percentage) narrowly nudged USA hockey Olympic hero Ryan Miller (2.35 GAA and .926 save percentage) in net, and their special teams totally outclassed the Sabres' in the six games. The Bruins got a pair of power play goals to jump out to a 2-0 lead, and the Bruins' penalty kill kept Buffalo from scoring a single man-up goal in the series (0 for 19). So, they move on and Buffalo is swapping its hockey sticks for golf clubs.
On the same night the B's cut down the Sabres, the eight-seeded Canadiens were busy winning a Game 6 of their own, 3-1, to send the top-seeded Capitals to the brink. The seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers already got an early start on their spring cleaning by dispatching the New Jersey Devils. In the egalitarian Eastern Conference, only the No. 4-seed Penguins, who loom as a possible second-round opponent for the reborn Bruins, have advanced among higher-seeded teams.
Even the Sabres, the Northeast Division champions, didn't seem that surprised to be upended by the Bruins, a team that jumped out to a three-games-to-one lead on them in this playoff series.
"It's disappointing," said Buffalo winger Thomas Vanek. "But you look at the parity, one through eight and every team plays a good system and has good goaltending on both sides. I think it could have went both ways, but we are on the short end of it."
Of course, the Bruins have been on the short end of this playoff parity play as well. Last year, it was the sixth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes that put the Bruins on ice in the second round of the playoffs and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.
"I think anybody can beat anybody. It's unpredictable, really, " said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. "The seeding is just the stats. Every year you have some upsets and you have some favorites, but if you're not ready to really work extremely, extremely hard and battle for every puck, every game, you ain't going to win four games.
"It's the toughest trophy [to win]. That's why it is. It's such a long way, and it's so exhausting to do that. You see it's only after the first round, but everybody is so beat up."
Upset or not, getting past the first round for the second straight year for the first time since the 1990-91 and '91-'92 campaigns alters the perceptions of the Bruins' season. It no longer feels like they collectively skated backward this year after leading the Eastern Conference in points last year. They have redeemed themselves, and now you can throw their seeding out the window.
If the Habs can eliminate the Capitals tomorrow, the Bruins would actually be the higher seed in their second-round playoff series and have home-ice advantage while hosting the Flyers.
If the No. 1-seeded Capitals win, the Bruins draw wanton winger Matt Cooke and the Penguins, which with Marc Savard cleared to come back from the concussion he suffered at the hands of Cooke on March 7 would make for a great pucks plot twist.
The Bruins would probably be favored against the Flyers, their Winter Classic foil, and not against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, but it doesn't really matter who is favored when hockey goes hirsute and playoff beards are in vogue.
"Because I think our league is much more evened up," said slick Slovakian Miroslav Satan, who potted the game-winner in overtime of Game 4 and tipped home the eventual game-winner last night. "There is not too much difference between team No. 3 and team No. 6, or 2 or 7, a few points. If you really focus in on the playoff series and are able to improve a thing or two you have a chance against higher-seeded teams."
That's the magic of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"Talk to Baby. He's the star of the game," said Wallace cordially as he walked out to meet his waiting family.
The gregarious Davis, who made up for the absence of a suspended Kevin Garnett by pouring in 23 points and grabbing eight rebounds in 29 minutes of alacritous action, was more than happy to hold court with the media at his locker, even though he had previously recounted his performance at the podium.
The arrangement was fine for last night, but at some point in these playoffs Wallace has to be heard from on the court -- and not just pleading his case to an official -- or like him the Celtics will go out silently into the night. They cannot return to the NBA Finals if all they're going to get out of Big Shot 'Sheed is the combined 10 points and 6 rebounds they've gotten in the first two games of their Eastern Conference playoff series.
They need him to be the versatile, accomplished, clutch veteran presence off the bench he was billed as when he came to Boston, not the barely visible one he has been so far. As Mark Jackson would say, Rasheed Wallace you're better than that.
Wallace said he and the Celtics would be ready when it was time for the "big-boy shots." While the Celtics have turned up their game in the postseason, we're still waiting on Wallace.
If the Celtics believed they could get by simply with Big Baby then they wouldn't have sent a Green convoy to Casa Wallace in Michigan last summer to convince him to come to Boston.
Davis had five 20-plus point games in the playoffs last year. The Celtics still lost in seven games to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Miami's Michael Beasley is too unpolished to take advantage of Davis, but teams like Orlando and Cleveland can attack Davis's lack of length with taller, more athletic, more skilled power forwards in Rashard Lewis and Antawn Jamison.
The question is can Wallace do what he was brought here to do? There is a lot of evidence from his playoff résumé that says he can, but there is little evidence from his brief Celtics career to say he will.
The 35-year-old has had a difficult adjustment to coming off the bench -- he started a career-low 13 games this season, after being a reserve in just eight games total in five-plus seasons with the Pistons and never in the playoffs. He is still trying to grasp the Celtics complex system of defensive rules and rotations, and often doesn't look completely comfortable on offense either.
It was telling that three of the players the Celtics acquired to boost their bench -- Wallace, Marquis Daniels and Nate Robinson -- were all on the court during garbage time of the blowout win over the Heat.
"Hey, Rasheed Wallace is more [than] capable of delivering for us," said Davis. "He is here for a reason. He knows that. We know what he can do. We're not worried about 'Sheed. We're just worried about ourselves as a team, making sure that we do what we have to do as a team to get wins like this."
Center Kendrick Perkins, who anchored the Celtics defense with KG at home, also offered a verbal vote of confidence.
"I think each night a different guy is going to step up in the playoffs. You never know. Each guy has got stay ready," said Perkins. "I'm expecting big things out of Rasheed. He's been around a long time. The thing I did like out of Rasheed [last night] is that he came in and played defense well, rebounded well."
The last part is debatable. After three quarters, when the Celtics led, 85-59, Wallace had 2 points, 2 rebound and two fouls. Playing the entire fourth quarter, he finished with a respectable 6 points and 5 boards, but was a minus-12 for the night.
Wallace entered the game for Perkins with 4:04 left in the first quarter and the Celtics were up 15-10. Davis was at the foul line for two free throws, so the lead grew to 17-10. When Wallace checked out with 9:27 left in the first half, the Celtics trailed, 29-25.
Wallace missed his first shot, a jumper from the right side, and picked up a technical foul. He didn't grab a rebound in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Wallace hit a picturesque, fadeaway turnaround jumper from the baseline, but he also was late on a rotation that led to a Jermaine O'Neal dunk over him -- plus a foul -- and Miami's four-point lead. In his defense, O'Neal had caught him with a knee in the stomach on the other end; the officials should have stopped play for his injury, but did not.
It was after Wallace went out that the Celtics ripped off a 21-0 run to take a 46-29 lead and control of the game. An 18-0 third quarter run that established a 32-point lead also came sans 'Sheed.
Perkins said the Celtics need X-factor performances from their rotation players. They got one in Game 1 from Tony Allen, who had 14 points. Last night, they got it from Davis, forced into the starting lineup by KG's errant elbow. At some point, they need it from Wallace.
"A lot of teams have wild card players off the bench," said Perkins. "Denver has J.R. Smith. Cleveland has a few guys. We were wondering who those guys would be for us. Right now, it's Baby and T.A."
Wallace remains the ultimate wild card for the Celtics.
So, with that in mind and a bountiful sports weekend on tap, here are Ten for the Weekend (that sounds like a cool name for a band). Unlike when you listen to your iPod, feedback is a good thing here, so feel free to chime in with comments.
1. NCAA men's tournament expansion -- Hate the idea of the men's NCAA tournament expanding to 96 teams. The purpose of the tournament is to crown a champion, not deliver television content. There is virtually no chance that any team on the wrong side of the 65-team bubble was robbed of an NCAA title. With the tournament's TV contract having an opt-out clause, this is a straight cash grab by the NCAA. It's also completely hypocritical to dismiss the idea of a football Final Four with a "plus-one" because it would increase missed class time and then say expanding the tournament and adding an extra level of games won't result in a significant increase in missed class time. The NCAA has run infomercials during the tournament with the slogan, "We put our money where our mission is." Let's not be naive, the mission is to make money.
2. Cavalier attitude -- Anybody else think the Celtics need to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers at TD Garden on Sunday to set themselves up for a playoff run? The Celtics haven't beaten a fellow Eastern Conference contender since Christmas Day in Orlando, and haven't beaten a legitimate title contender at home all season. There are some encouraging signs from the Green, mainly that Kevin Garnett looks more like Kevin Garnett, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers has done a great job of keeping the faith. However, his team needs to stop talking like champions and start playing like champions. They need the confidence boost and street cred from beating the LeBrons.
3. It's called Bruins -- Saturday's game in Toronto is mission critical for the Bruins. They need to win to keep pace in the playoff chase and to make sure the first-round pick they have from the Maple Leafs, currently second-to-last in the NHL with 71 points, provides them the best chance of winning the NHL Draft Lottery and landing Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin. If the Bruins end up out of the top two in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft (wonder if there is an exit draft) the Phil Kessel trade could come up empty, like the Bruins offense. The Bruins have Toronto's 2011 first-rounder, but the Internet buzz is the 2011 class of NHL prospects could be one of the weakest in recent years.
4. Go BC -- Ruffled some Eagle feathers at The Heights with my last foray into Boston College basketball, but Al Skinner is no longer in place and the search is on for his replacement. The list of candidates that athletic director Gene DeFilippo has put together is intriguing with Steve Donahue of Cornell, Chris Mooney of Richmond and former BC assistants Bill Coen (Northeastern) and Ed Cooley (Fairfield). Another named should be added to the list, Dayton coach Brian Gregory, who led the Flyers to the NIT title last night. DeFilippo told WEEI he wants a coach like Michigan State's Tom Izzo. Gregory was associate head coach at Michigan State under Izzo and is regarded as a good recruiter and game manager.
5. Opening Night -- The Red Sox open their season and the entire major league baseball season against the Yankees at Fenway on Sunday night. Sure, the Sox and Yankees have opened the season before (2005 at Yankee Stadium), but it seems like a waste of the greatest rivalry in North American sports. Opening Day is always special and so are Sox-Yankees games. Why combine the two? Save some of the AL East's internecine struggle for later, when the baseball season has grown tedious with the Torontos and Baltimores.
6. Line 'em up -- It's quite interesting that Terry Francona came out and said he'll bat J.D. Drew sixth behind David Ortiz in the Red Sox order to start the season. Francona is traditionally not a fan of grouping lefthanders together for matchup reasons, and the decision to bat Drew and his mighty .OPS behind Big Papi speaks to the uncertainty surrounding what the team can expect to get out of Adrian Beltre, he of one extra-base hit in 42 spring at-bats. But spring stats are bogus. Before the 2007 season, during which he set career-highs for runs driven in (120) and batting average (.324) and won the World Series MVP, Mike Lowell batted .170 in 53 spring ABs.
7. Women's equality -- If you haven't been watching the women's NCAA tournament you've missed some great basketball. It doesn't get much better than the buzzer-beating lay-up from Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen to send the Cardinal to the Final Four. The female Final Four, which tips off Sunday, has great story lines. Baylor, which has 6-foot-8-inch dunking machine Brittney Griner, takes on Connecticut, and Oklahoma, which boasts some famous kin on the court in Abi Olajuwon (daughter of Hakeem) and Carlee Roethlisberger (sister of Ben), faces 35-1 Stanford. But the whole tournament has an air of inevitability thanks to UConn, which has won 76 straight games, and won its tournament games by an average of 47 per game. The women's game needs more parity to match men's March Madness.
8. Tiger Woods tell-all -- Things just keep getting worse for Tiger Woods as he gets caught in the intricate web of lies he spun to fuel his philandering lifestyle. His mistresses should just get together and do a TV tell-all "The Bachelor"-style and have Chris Harrison host. Monday's press conference at Augusta National is Woods's last chance to really set the record straight. He doesn't have to go into the salacious details, but he needs to stop with the cover-up because his former consorts are more than willing to reveal his dirty little secrets. Take the hit, Tiger and move on.
9. Coaching 'em up -- You often hear about a coach having to coach up his young players, but you wonder if Patriots coach Bill Belichick is doing a little bit of that with his staff. Belichick is going to have a greater role in the defense this season, which, now like the offense, doesn't have a coordinator. Locker room unrest, lack of a pass rush, and a banged-up Tom Brady were among the reasons the Patriots went 10-6 last season, but don't underestimate the role that callow coaches had in the team's tough season. Like the players, the coaches around Belichick must progress this year, especially quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien and secondary coach Josh Boyer.
10. Kelly green -- It's awfully hard to meet, talk with or watch Red Sox uber-prospect Casey Kelly and not come away impressed. The Sox want to tread carefully with Kelly, who won't turn 21 until Oct. 4, but you have to wonder if Junichi Tazawa's Tommy John surgery opens up the possibility that we could see Kelly in the big leagues this season. Even though the Sox rotation looks stacked now, if Tim Wakefield's back acts up or Daisuke Matsuzaka continues to be plagued by nagging injuries the internal options for the Sox are not overwhelming (Boof Bonser? Michael Bowden? Kason Gabbard?). We might see Kelly, who will begin the season at Double A Portland, sooner than we or the Red Sox had hoped.
The only consistent element of the seasons for either the Bruins or the Celtics has been their inconsistency.
The Bruins and the Celtics have been tougher to figure out this season than the federal tax codes. Just when you're ready to write them off they respond and reel you back in. Just when you're ready to expect a return on your emotional investment in their ability to fulfill the expectations they engendered back in October they let you down.
Watching these teams play is like taking a Rorschach test every game. One gets a massive migraine trying to figure out the eventual form of the Garden denizens.
Anything goes in this Jekyll and Hyde hoops and hockey season.
Case in point: the Bruins' 5-3 home loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning last night. The Bruins had finally engendered some goodwill after incensing and alienating their fans base with cause celebre Matt Cooke by picking up a pair of pivotal playoff-positioning wins over the Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers. Then they catch a collective skate edge on home ice against Tampa Bay in a game in which they outshot the Lightning, 50-18, and forced us to remember why they're a maddening and middling team.
The Celtics, winners of five of six, are playing arguably their best basketball of the season right now -- tight defense, crisp ball movement and some actual rebounding -- but would anyone really be that shocked if they lost tonight to a Sacramento Kings team that is without its best player, Tyreke Evans? This is a team that lost to the lowly Nets at home and has had more dead spots in play this season than the parquet floor of the old Garden.
How can you know which version of the Bruins or Celtics will show up when they don't know which of their players will on any given night?
For the Bruins, you don't know if you're going to get David Krejci, circa 2009 and the Winter Olympics, or the Blank Czech that has skated through a good portion of this season. Ditto for Milan Lucic, who has lost some of his punch, both pugilistically and offensively after looking like Cam Neely Lite late last season.
It's not a coincidence that in the three highest-scoring games the Bruins have had this month -- a 5-1 win over the Flyers on the road, a 5-2 win over the Hurricanes on the road and a 4-0 thrashing of the Thrashers -- Krejci had a goal and an assist in each.
Krejci is a prime example of the Bruins' split-personality play. Playing away from the Garden, Krejci has been at home with 12 goals and 17 assists and is a plus-15. But playing at home he's looked lost like the rest of the Bruins, whose win over the Rangers last Sunday was their first in regulation on Garden ice this decade, with a 3-12, minus-12 next to his name. Same guy, two completely different players.
With Paul Pierce regaining his form the Celtics have once again looked like a formidable team, but you just don't know which version of Pierce or Kevin Garnett you're going to get on a night-to-night basis. One night KG goes for 10 points and three boards in a loss to the Jazz and looks like a ticket to nowhere. Two nights later, he drops 20 points and pulls down 10 boards against the Denver Nuggets, his first 20-10 game since December, and resembles the Big Ticket of old.
Pierce has been a consistent scorer his entire career, but the only thing consistent for him this season has been his attempts to overcome nagging injuries. With complete convalescence his consistency seems to be returning (he is averaging 24.4 points per game in his last five games), but excitement about Pierce and the Celtics could fade fast with San Antonio in town Sunday and Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City at the Garden Wednesday.
Plus, to paraphrase the counterculture catchphrase, don't trust a team that relies on three superstars over the age of 30, especially when two of those three, Garnett and Pierce, can't rely on their bodies to respond game in and game out.
It would be nice to have some semblance of reason, order or logic to the way our winter sports teams play, but that might be too much to ask this year.
These schizophrenic franchises will probably continue to drive us mad, as the emotional roller-coaster continues to corkscrew on Causeway Street. Break away from the Garden parties if you can for your own sanity, but chances are you can't.
Like a boyfriend or a girlfriend that keeps you hanging on, the Bruins and Celtics know exactly what to do to keep you interested, even if you know it's probably not going to work out well in the end.
It's been a weird season of Boston basketball, fraught with aging stars, injuries, and apathy. Eleven days ago after a loss to Cleveland everyone was ready to eulogize a team some predicted to win 70 games at the outset of the season. Since losing to the LeBrons, the Green have recycled their form from a 23-5 start and now sit at 46-25, tied with the Atlanta Hawks for third place in the Eastern Conference, with a tie-breaker in hand.
Since the Celtics have maintained all year long that it's really all about the playoffs, let's skip ahead and take a three-point play approach to their playoff chances.
Eternal Sunshine of the Celtic-supporting Mind
No one expects the Celtics to lose a first-round playoff matchup against the JV of the Eastern Conference. But the Green-goggles-wearing crowd believes that a healthy Celtics team with a starting five of Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo is good enough to win an NBA championship, just as it was two years and may have been last year if Garnett's knee had cooperated.
That starting five is an impressive 36-13 this season.
The Celtics have just been engaging in energy conservation during the regular season, just like the 1968-69 Celtics, who finished fourth in the East and then won the NBA title.
Now, they're turning it on and tuning up for the games that count.
The two biggest missing ingredients for the Celtics have suddenly returned -- their defensive mojo and Pierce's sublime scoring touch. His ability to create his own shot is crucial for the Celtics in any championship run (see: 2008 playoff series against Cleveland and the Lakers).
Pierce, who has battled right knee, foot, and thumb ailments this season, said recently he is as healthy as he has been all year, and he looks it. In his last five games, he's gone for 29, 26, 29, 11, and 27 points. It's no coincidence that the only game the Celtics lost during that stretch was his 3-for-13 outing against the Jazz.
The path back to the promise land is clear. Maintain the No. 3 spot in the East, beat an Orlando squad that the Celtics had on the ropes last year without Garnett in Round 2 to get to the Eastern Conference Finals and make LeBron and the Cavaliers the 1986-87 Detroit Pistons. Do that and it's the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons.
Pessimists of the Parquet
One and done, that's it for the Celtics and that's it for the Big Three. Thanks for the title guys, it's been real, but not only has the championship window closed, it now has steel bars surrounding it. The Celtics haven't won one game against the elite Eastern Conference teams -- Cleveland (one more shot on April 4), Orlando and Atlanta -- since Christmas. If that's the case, how can you expect them to beat one of them four times in a seven-game series?
The excuse for the Celtics' inconsistent and uninspired play has been that they're bored with the regular season. Well, how come the Lakers and the Magic, both of which played in the NBA Finals last season, haven't succumbed to regular season ennui? Other teams have dealt with injuries too; ask the Lakers about missing Pau Gasol.
The Truth isn't Paul Pierce. It's that the Celtics are now just another good NBA team, not an elite one. They're 16-19 against teams that were plus-.500 when the Celtics played them and 28-6 against sub-.500 competition.
A title run is asking too much of an aging team that relies too much on two players who are breaking down physically -- Garnett and Pierce, who is entering a David Ortiz-phase of his career.
Coach Doc Rivers hasn't established a consistent rotation for the inconsistent reserves, which are led by unreliable and unpredictable Rasheed Wallace .
Plus, the Celtics don't play well at home, where they're 22-12 this season. The homefront practically carried them to the '08 title; they didn't win a road game until the Eastern Conference Finals. Yes, the '68-'69 Celtics went 24-12 at home (they had six neutral site games), but Bill Russell isn't walking back through that door.
Gasper's Gut Feeling
The Celtics are playing their best basketball since the start of the season and some (yours truly included) may have been too quick to write them off as not having enough talent to compete for a title. They do and are a dangerous team. It's clear that injuries contributed to their lack of confidence and chemistry, but they've made far too many excuses all season long. It's tough to just turn it on in the final 17 games to win an 18th world title.
They'll play out the rest of the season and lock down the No. 3 spot in the East, because Atlanta has to play the Lakers and Cleveland twice down the stretch.
Then they'll win their first-round series against Miami before losing to defending Eastern-Conference champion Orlando in a hard-fought seven games, just like last season.
It becomes a season of transition for the Celtics, where they learn they need to rely less offensively on Garnett and Allen and more on Rondo, who is fast becoming their best player and best hope for another championship. Instead of Rondo playing a supporting role for the Big Three, the Big Three become bigger supporters for Rondo until he gets some new running mates.
It's hard to say what is the bigger surprise -- the fact the allegedly 70-win capable Celtics are such an abject disappointment that their record is within reach of Kevin Durant and Co., or that in the Darwinian Western Conference, callow OKC is firmly ensconced in the playoffs at 17 games above .500.
It was Oklahoma City, in its previous incarnation as the Seattle SuperSonics, that made the Big Three -- and their now apparent demise -- possible. Danny Ainge was desperate to salvage a doomed lottery that saw the C's bumped to the fifth pick, despite having the league's second-worst record in 2006-07. Seattle got the ping-pong balls to bounce its way to move up to the No. 2 spot in the 2007 draft, right behind Portland, which won the lottery, putting the pseudo-Sonics in position to take Durant and then trade Ray Allen to Boston.
Instead of Durant, who is second in the NBA in scoring to LeBron James at 29.8 points per game, as their franchise cornerstone of the future alongside Rajon Rondo and Al Jefferson, the Celtics cashed in their chips. (Lest you think Ainge would have taken Greg Oden, remember him sitting next to Durant's mother at a Texas game.)
They got Allen, a second-round pick that became Glen Davis and eventually Kevin Garnett, who after initially nixing a deal to the Celtics hopped aboard to play with Paul Pierce and Allen. The quick fix was an instant success as the Big Three brought home Banner No. 17.
The question is which team would you rather be today -- Oklahoma City with the dynamic Durant, a young Rondo-esque point guard in Russell Westbrook and roster flexibility or the Celtics with an NBA-elderly championship core, the real Rondo, and a grim future?
Give me Durant -- there is not a more unstoppable scorer in the NBA -- and the OKC bunch. Despite their embarrassing Arena League team name, the Thunder have something the Celtics don't have -- hope and room for improvement. This is as good as it gets for the Celtics. Unless coach Doc Rivers can find a time machine, the Celtics aren't going to improve.
Everything with the Celtics now is about the past. Players who are past their prime. Constant references to past success members of the team have had. Opposing teams who get past their once vaunted defense when it really counts.
The team's new Glory Days have proved fleeting.
Oklahoma City's best days are ahead. Rookie guard James Harden looks like a keeper. Like Rondo, Westbrook can get to the rim on anyone, but unlike Rondo he looks capable of improving his jump shot. Jeff Green, who was selected with the pick the Celtics sent for Allen, is a solid young player with trade value.
Watching Durant play alone is enough to erase the revisionist history about losing the lottery being some sort of stroke of fabled fortune for the Celtics because it beget the Big Three and another championship. Can you imagine how much fun it would be to watch Durant and Rondo play together, not to mention the fact that the Celtics, unlike Durant's Thunder, would still have a legitimate power forward in Jefferson.
Now that's a Big Three you can build around -- Durant, Rondo and Big Al.
It's wishful thinking, like the Celtics winning another title this year or the near future, unless Ainge can miraculously move Garnett or Paul Pierce and their monster salaries.
Razing this team is the fastest path to raising Banner No. 18.
That was clear even before the Cavaliers outhustled, outdefended and outrebounded the Celtics yesterday in a 104-93 victory.
The Celtics didn't play their best against the LeBrons, but it wouldn't have mattered because their best isn't good enough any more. The last legit NBA title contender they beat with its full complement of players was the Magic on Christmas Day. The Green are now 3-12 against the title-seeking sextet of Cleveland, Orlando, the LA Lakers, Atlanta, Denver, and Dallas.
The worst part is that the Celtics themselves believe otherwise. Deny isn't just something they try to do on defense. It's their default defense for this entire season.
It's one thing to be upbeat and optimistic, which is just the nature of Rivers, but it's another to have veterans like 35-year-old Rasheed Wallace pointing to their championship pedigree after each loss.
Wallace was abhorrent against the Cavs. He was 1 for 8 from the field, was abused on both ends by Anderson Varejao, repeatedly failed to box out his man and was freelancing on defense. Just like hockey, the NBA now has plus-minus, Wallace was a minus-17.
The team would have been better off leaving him at the hotel.
Too often this season Celtics players have made comments like this one Wallace made following Boston getting blown out on the parquet by the Memphis Grizzlies last week.
"This team has been there, no matter where we're coming from -- Mike [Finley] from San Antonio, me from Detroit. The guys here have won it already. Once the big-boy shots come we'll be ready."
The last time I checked, no one on the Celtics roster was Bill Russell when it came to rings.
Durant isn't going to win 11 titles either, but he looks a lot more likely than the Celtics to win one going forward.
With the benefit of hindsight, you can point to the first game after the break last year as the turning point of that season and possibly the entire Big Three era. Last February, the Celtics opened the second half in Utah and lost the game and Kevin Garnett, who injured his right knee going up for an alley-oop and hasn't been the same since.
That Celtics team was in a lot better position than this one. At the All-Star break last year, the Celtics were 44-11 and had the most wins in the NBA. This year, the Celtics are a pedestrian 32-18, and a season that started with the promise of a run at the Bulls' record of 72 regular-season wins now would take a 28-2 mark in the final 30 games to reach 60 wins. Even a team with a leprechaun as its mascot doesn't get that lucky.
This will be the second straight season the Celtics' win total declines. The Green won 66 games and the NBA title in 2007-08. Last season, with Garnett hoops hors de combat for 23 of the 27 games after the All-Star break, the progeny of the parquet managed to grab 62 wins.
This is a Celtics' season that has been baffling on many fronts -- the team's inability to close out games, its propensity toward lackadaisical play, its absence of on-court chemistry. Coach Doc Rivers and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge are searching for answers, and so are we.
So, here are a starting five of questions about the Celtics as they start the second half:
1. Will Ray Allen still be a Celtic after the trade deadline? Tonight's game could mark the final appearance of the contemporary Big Three of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. It will definitely mark the final game the Celtics play before the league's 3 p.m. trade deadline on Thursday. It's pretty clear by now that the Celtics have done everything but put Allen on eBay to let teams know he is available for the right deal. He is simultaneously the most disposable and desirable of the Big Three in a trade because of his $19.7 million expiring contract. Cap space is more coveted than LeBron James by NBA GMs. Wisely, Ainge realizes he can't just give Allen away, which is why, according to recent Yahoo! Sports reports, he has explored deals for Andre Iguodala, Kevin Martin, Monta Ellis and Caron Butler, the latter of whom ended up going to Dallas. I have one more suggestion, how about replacing Allen with another UConn standout?
2. Will Kevin Garnett's right knee be right in the second half? The Celtics were 23-5 before Garnett got kicked in his surgically-repaired right knee in consecutive losses to the Los Angeles Clippers (Baron Davis's buzzer-beater) and Golden State. He missed 10 games with what the team termed a hyperextension. Now, he's limping around like Willis Reed and his emphatic alley-oop flushes have been cringe-worthy alley-oops misses. Since returning, Garnett hasn't recorded a single double-double or reached the 20-point plateau in 10 games while the Celtics have gone 5-5. Both look like shells of their former selves. It's apparent that the Celtics need more than Garnett's mere presence. They need him to be a dominating presence again on the court.
3. Can the Celtics rediscover their defensive mojo? Rivers has repeatedly said that what concerns him most about his team's stretch of uninspired basketball is its inability to generate stops on the defensive end when needed. That is the chief culprit in the team's inability to hold a lead. It's one thing to blow double-digit second-half advantages against teams with championship timbres like the Magic (twice, including a 19-0 third-quarter run by Orlando on Super Bowl Sunday) and the Lakers. It's another to do it against a New Orleans team minus Chris Paul. The Celtics still lead the league in fewest point allowed (93.7 average), but they're not a good man-to-man defensive team. Too many individual defenders let their man beat them and then look for help, leading to breakdowns. Pierce and Rajon Rondo in particular are capable of better defense.
4. Is Marquis Daniels a difference-maker? I derisively referred to Daniels as "The Missing Link," after he had the most talked about green thumb this side of Martha Stewart. However, after missing 28 games with torn ligaments in his left thumb, it's obvious why Rivers kept referencing Daniels's return. The 6-6 Daniels can back up Rondo at the point, is capable of creating his own shot off the bench, and provides the team with desperately needed defense and athleticism off the bench (Tony Allen is not a defensive stopper). Maybe it wasn't an accident that the Celtics were 16-4 with Daniels for the first 20 games before the thumb injury. The Celtics still need to investigate a true backup point guard, but Daniels looks he could be this team's version of James Posey.
5. Can the Celtics rebound? Literally. Boston struggles on the boards. The Celtics are the second-worst rebounding team in the NBA, once again behind Golden State. Rasheed Wallace hasn't averaged fewer than 5 rebounds per game since his rookie season with Washington in 1995-96, when he pulled down 4.6 rebounds per game. This year he is averaging 4.2, although in fairness he is logging a career-low 23.7 minutes per game. The Celtics need more on the glass from Glen Davis (if he is not dealt) and 'Sheed to offset KG's diminished ability around the rim. Part of the Celtics' inability to get stops is tied to giving teams second-chance points.
The parishioners of the parquet should have taken a good long look as they filed out because it could have been the last time they saw the Celtics' Holy Trinity together on their home court.
The Green, who wrap up the first half on Wednesday against New Orleans in the Big Easy, don't return to their Causeway Street court until a Feb. 23 tilt with the New York Knicks, five days after the NBA's trade deadline.
Yesterday's 96-89 loss to the Orlando Magic was enough to shake the faith of any Celtics fan in the ability of the Big Three to deliver this team back to the promised land. The Celtics out-rebounded Orlando (40-38), had more points in the paint (42-28) and committed fewer turnovers (11 to the Magic's 15) and still lost a game they led by 11 at halftime to drop to 1-3 against the Magic this year.
That should be enough for Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to recognize that he needs to seriously consider rebooting his team and breaking up Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Translation: Cash in Ray Allen and his $19.7 million-plus expiring contract.
Allen would be The One to go because ownership loves Pierce, and Garnett and his troublesome knee are signed through the 2011-12 season.
Plus, more and more this looks like Rajon Rondo's flock to lead. He was Boston's best player yesterday with 17 points, 9 assists and no turnovers. How much longer can the team hold him back to defer to the ailing and aging Big Three?
"It still goes through the Big Three," Rondo insisted. "I’m just increasing my role that I have as a role player. It’s not different from the year we won it."
It is different. The same core pieces are in place that were on the Celtics when they won the title in 2008, the memorable first year of the Garnett-Pierce-Allen alliance, but it's not the same team. Garnett is no longer a dominant presence on either end of the floor. He has become a complementary piece for Pierce and Rondo. At 34, Allen's durability is remarkable, but his body can't take averaging nearly 37 minutes a game (36:42) and he has trouble defending the athletic wing players the Celtics ask him to cover. Making matters worse, the energy he expends trying to do so saps his offensive game.
Allen logged a team-high 39 minutes and 30 seconds yesterday. After a strong first half (11 points on 3 of 5 shooting), Allen shot 1 for 8 the rest of the way and finished with 14 points. During the debacle of a third quarter yesterday, which saw the Celtics start the period up 51-40 and end it down 76-62, Allen was 0 for 4 with no points.
Breaking up the Big Three might remove the Celtics from the championship conversation for this year, but talking like champions is about all this they're doing right now.
"Like one of the guys said, 'We're better than Orlando.' I said, 'No, you're not. That's a bunch of crap. They beat you three games, two at your place. They're better. They knocked you out of the playoffs last year,'" said coach Doc Rivers. "Orlando is better than us right now. Atlanta is better than us right now. LA is better than us right now. Those are the teams that have beaten us. That doesn't mean we can't be better than them at some point, but right now those teams are better than us."
Yesterday's loss dropped the Celtics to 2-8 against the iron of the NBA -- the Magic, the Cavaliers, the Hawks and the Lakers -- with a game left with LA and three with the Cavaliers.
All along, the Celtics have been shrugging off losses and telling us to wait until they get their full complement of players. They had that yesterday, as Marquis "The Missing Link" Daniels returned after 28 games with a torn ligament in his thumb and played well, chipping in with 8 points, and Pierce (13 points on 5 of 12 shooting) played for the first time since suffering a mid-foot sprain on Monday.
That's what made this defeat more sobering. They had no excuses.
"I like the fact now that there are not excuses. You're intact," said Rivers. "I don't want to hear the excuses. I didn't want to hear them when we were injured, so I definitely don't want to hear them now."
He didn't want to hear them after the game either. A fed up Rivers lit into his team, and the players held a team meeting led by the Big Three.
What precipitated both occurrences was possibly the most disappointing quarter of basketball the Celtics have played all season, when an 11-point lead went up in smoke faster than one of Red Auerbach's cigars. On their way to a 36-point third quarter, the Magic reeled off 19 straight unanswered after Rondo beat the shot clock with a 3-pointer to give the Celtics a 60-51 lead with 7:16 left in the quarter. That was the Celtics' last basket of the period.
The game may have also been the last (home) stand for the Big Three.
"Right now, we can't say that we're better than Orlando. We can't say that we're better than Atlanta. We can't say that we're better than the Lakers," said Allen. "They beat us. It's all about what's in the pudding, and right now we don't have the proof."
Actually, Ainge has mounting proof that he needs to make a big change.
That we're even asking such a query five games before the All-Star break speaks to how much the Celtics have underwhelmed and underachieved to this point. Many, myself included, agreed with Rasheed Wallace's proclamation that these Celtics could challenge the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' all-time NBA-record mark of 72-10. Now, it's far from a fait accompli that they'll even be among the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics woke up this morning in Washington in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with a 29-16 record. By comparison, they were 36-9 at this point each of the last two seasons.
Yesterday's loss to the Lakers is cause for some soul-searching. The Celtics had an 11-point fourth quarter lead and blew it, allowing the Lakers to impose their will in what Magic Johnson used to call "winning time." The Magic did the same thing to the Celtics on Thursday night, clawing back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit.
Spare me the bemoaning of the offensive foul call on Paul Pierce. He pushed off. You could see that from the nosebleed-inducing ninth level of the Garden. It was the proper call.
Now, Ainge has to decide between today and the Green's next meeting with the Lakers -- Feb. 18, coincidentally the NBA's trading deadline -- what the correct call is with this Celtics team. Does he make a minor move like adding a backup point guard? Or does he trade Ray Allen and his $18.77 million expiring contract and blow up the Big Three?
Here are four more questions about the Celtics that determine the answer to the above:
1. Is the current incarnation of KG good enough to win a title? It's been five games since Kevin Garnett returned from his hyperextended right knee. He has averaged 12.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. The Celtics can get by with KG's current offense, but not his defense. It was jarring to watch Lakers center Andrew Bynum dunk over KG twice, just as jarring as it was to watch Rashard Lewis blow by him with the game on the line in Orlando.
Bynum, who had 19 points and 11 rebounds, said after the game that he and LA power forward Pau Gasol were "kicking their [expletive] on the inside." The Celtics are still tied for tops in the league in fewest points allowed per game (93.8), but Garnett looks like he lacks the explosiveness to be an eraser in the back like in the past. Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after the game that what bothered him the most about his team's recent play was its inability to get timely (read: fourth quarter) stops as it has in the past.
2. Can Rajon Rondo be counted on to take and make shots in crunch time? Rondo dominated the second and third quarters yesterday, but he might as well have sat in the stands for the fourth. Rondo was 9 of 14 with 21 points and 11 assists after three quarters. He had no points on 0-for-2 shooting and one assist in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers dared Rondo to shoot from the outside and he looked like he'd rather go to dinner with Chris Paul than shoot. With the Celtics up 2 with 2:23 to go, Rondo passed up an open jumper and ended up getting called for traveling. Rondo's reluctance to shoot from outside of 10-feet in crunch time turns the Celtics' offense into a 4-on-5 affair.
"We wanted him to take those shots, not make them obviously, but take them," Gasol said. "Then we can live with that because it's not something he relies on or that he wants to do. He wants to get into the lane for the layup or for setting other teammates up."
3. Is Ray Allen still a reliable late-game option? The 34-year-old Allen is one of the greatest shooters of all-time, but he is shooting a career-low 33.9 percent from 3-point range and woefully missed the potential winner against the Lakers. If Allen can't consistently knock down shots, the Celtics need to find someone who can. With Allen misfiring, Boston's only late-game option capable of creating his own offense is Pierce. The Celtics need another option so they can put teams in the type of bind that Atlanta did on Friday night, when they had both Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford going one-on-one and scoring at will in the fourth quarter.
After hitting his first seven shots against Orlando, Allen went 7 for 28 the rest of the way against the Magic, Hawks and Lakers. The Celtics overcame his off-target shooting in the playoffs two years ago. They can't do it now.
4. Is Marquis Daniels the missing link? It sounds crazy to say that the Celtics' championship hopes -- and the future of the Big Three -- rest on the recovering thumb of Marquis Daniels. However, with Daniels the Celtics are 16-4, without him they are 13-12. Of course Pierce and KG also missed time during that stint, but perhaps Daniels is the missing ingredient. He gives Boston a ball-handler to back up Rondo and is an athletic slasher on one end and a defensive stopper on the other. Without him, the Celtics bench is somewhat one-dimensional from a veteran standpoint because Eddie House, Wallace, and Brian Scalabrine seem to be in perpetual orbit with the 3-point line, unable to escape the arc's gravitational pull.
Perhaps Boston sports fans have been distracted, pondering the Patriots' offseason or wondering if the Red Sox run prevention strategy is convenient propaganda or legitimate baseball philosophy while counting down the days to spring training. Either way, no one has seemed to notice that the local basketball team is unraveling faster than a roll of toilet paper lobbed across the front yard of a high school senior's home.
Garnett's injury was the worst thing that happened to the Celtics this season, and not for the reason you think. It gave the Celtics built-in cover and an easy-made excuse to shrug off poor play and not heed the warnings of coach Doc Rivers. Instead of rallying around each other and raising their games in Garnett's absence, it seemed like the Celtics players hit the collective pause button on the season, content to pick up the program when Garnett came back.
With Garnett's imminent (or so we've been told) return, the time for excuse-making is over.
The question is what exactly is KG coming back to? At the moment it does not look like a championship contender, rather a team in disarray that has swapped Ubuntu for backbiting and bickering. They have lost three straight and four of five and are 4-8 in their last 12 games.
This is not an ideal spot for Garnett to jump back in after having missed the last 10 games with a hyperextended right knee. He is viewed as an instant savior -- just add KG and stir -- his mere presence a panacea.
Even with Garnett ostensibly back it's hard to feel satisfied with the current state of the Celtics. There is cause for some concern on Causeway Street.
The Celtics are currently closer to the No. 4 spot in the East (Orlando is a game back of Boston and the Hawks are a half-game back of Boston) than they are to the No. 1 spot, held by the Cavaliers, who at 33-11 are four games up on the second-seeded Celtics.
Tonight's game at the Garden is the midway mark of the season for the Celtics, their 41st contest, and only the biggest homer would say that the Celtics (27-13) look championship-driven at the halfway point. Right now, they look like they're driving Rivers crazy, with uninspired play, an inability to hold leads in the second half, defensive breakdowns, ill-timed turnovers and maturity issues with young players like Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo and Glen Davis.
All were factors in their last two fall-from-ahead defeats to the Dallas Mavericks on Monday and to the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday, games in which the Celtics held double-digit leads and couldn't pull away.
Rondo said after the loss to Detroit that the Celtics are playing against themselves. Rivers said when his team gets a lead that players go to "individual ball" and are trying to get numbers. Even Rasheed Wallace, who was preaching patience over panic on Monday, expressed some dismay after losing in his Detroit homecoming, saying the Celtics aren't a team that can turn it on and turn it off right now, which is exactly what they've been trying do in Garnett's absence.
"Sometimes we think just because we're the Celtics and we go into a team's building that they're going to back down," Wallace said after the game.
Listen to these comments and you get the impression the Celtics have a chemistry deficiency without Garnett. He is the Elmer's Glue that holds the Green together. But that shouldn't be the case on a team that has veterans like Pierce, the team's captain, Ray Allen and Wallace.
They should be able to hold the fort while waiting for their all-star power forward to get healthy.
What we already knew has become painfully apparent in Garnett's absence -- this Celtics team isn't going to win a championship without him. That's not a newsflash, but it is troubling to see how the Celtics came apart at the seams in his absence, especially when considering that a healthy Garnett is anything but a certainty for this season.
Garnett has played in 29 games this season, averaging 15 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. With him in the lineup the Celtics are 22-7. Without him they're a sub-.500 team at 5-6.
In November, Garnett, 33, became the youngest player in NBA history to surpass 40,000 minutes played. That's like a car going over 100,000 miles. No matter how great of shape the car is in or how well you take care of it, after that mileage milestone the likelihood of a breakdown is greater.
So, the Celtics have to take advantage of Garnett's gifts while they can. That means those around him have to step up and start playing better.
With Garnett (hopefully) back beating his chest, banging his head against the basket support and barking out defensive instructions on defense, the Celtics don't have any more excuses.
Voting is an unpredictable and precarious process. The will of the people is actually more like the whim of the people. We've learned that here in our very own backyard this week.
Regardless of political affiliation or leanings, you have to give Scott Brown credit for running a great campaign to be elected to the US Senate. He earned every vote he got, which for the purposes of full disclosure did not include my own. You can't say the same about a pair of fast-fading NBA stars, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson, who could be carried into the starting lineups for the league's All-Star game, announced tonight on TNT, by the misguided vox populi.
It would be a complete travesty if either of these players made the All-Star team, and the fact that there is even the possibility that they could start the game based on fan voting is a sign that Celtics guard Ray Allen was right -- fans should not have the sole say in determining All-Star starters.
In the political arena voting is a right, but in the sports arena it's a privilege. And it's being abused.
In the last voting update the NBA released on Jan. 7, McGrady, a seven-time All-Star, had the guard spot opposite Kobe Bryant in the West, and Iverson, who has made 10 straight All-Star teams dating back to 2000, was inexplicably paired with Dwyane Wade in the East.
McGrady's own team, the Houston Rockets, won't even play him. He has played in six games and has a total of 19 points. The recalcitrant Iverson was dropped by the Memphis Grizzlies in November and hooked on with his original team, the Philadelphia 76ers, who were desperate to boost attendance and thought Iverson was the answer. The 34-year-old Iverson is averaging 14.4 points per game.
NBA fans must be eating Stephon Marbury's Vasoline if they really think that Iverson is having a better season than Rajon Rondo, who leads the league in steals per game and is third in assists per game. Or that T-Mac is a more worthy All-Star starter than the two best point guards in the game, Chris Paul and Steve Nash.
Closer to home, Celtics forward Kevin Garnett was a starter at forward in the East based on the last vote totals. He shouldn't be. Chris Bosh of the Raptors and Josh Smith of the Hawks are more deserving this season, but they lack the name recognition of KG.
Electing All-Stars for any sport shouldn't devolve into American Idol, a pandering popularity contest. By putting a player like Iverson or McGrady on the team as a starter you're preventing deserving players from making the team at all. Voting shouldn't be based on fond memories or familiar names.
The NBA is not alone when it comes to All-Star fan voting irregularities that would make George W. Bush blush.
Last year, with the NHL All-Star game in Montreal, fans of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge overran the NHL's electronic voting, electing four Canadiens to the six-player Eastern Conference starting lineup. Goalie Carey Price and defenseman Andrei Markov were legit, but forward Alexi Kovalev and defenseman Mike Komisarek were homer picks for the Habs, taking starting spots away from more deserving players like Alexander Ovechkin, who won his second straight Hart Trophy as league MVP, and Zdeno Chara, who won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman.
More than 50 years ago fan voting gave a new meaning to the idea of a Red State. In 1957, Reds fans stuffed the ballot box for baseball's All-Star game and seven of the eight starting position players for the National League were Reds. The only non-Red was Cardinals first baseman Stan Musial.
That meant that two of the game's greatest players -- ever -- Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were not voted in by the fans. Instead, they had to be appointed by Commissioner Ford Frick, who removed Reds outfielders Gus Bell and Wally Post. Frick also removed the All-Star vote from the hands of the fans. Baseball didn't let fan voting determine its All-Star starters again until 1970, when the game was played in...Cincinnati.
There is enough evidence that fan voting alone doesn't work. It's not just the fans that fail to honor the process.
We've all seen coaches select their own players as All-Stars or players not vote for fellow players they don't like, hence Rodney Harrison's two Pro Bowl appearances in his 15-year career. Like our government, there needs to be a system of checks and balances.
Not surprisingly, the NFL has the best model of any of the professional sports leagues with fan voting, player voting and coaches' voting each counting a third.
Why are the starters less important than the reserves?
In the NBA, the reserves are chosen by a vote of the coaches. In the NHL, the league's hockey operations department chooses the reserves in consultation with the general managers. In major league baseball, where each team has to have an All-Star representative, the "Scott Cooper Rule" around here, eight pitchers and one reserve at each of the other positions is chosen by the vote of players, managers and coaches; managers get to fill out the rest of the roster, except fans vote online for the final players on the 33-man rosters of each league.
The argument for the fan vote is that fans should be allowed to vote for the players they want to see. Fine, if you want to see Iverson or McGrady then go on YouTube or watch SportsCenter. The All-Star game should be a collection of the league's best players in a given season -- the Kevin Durants, Brandon Roys, and Zach Randophs.
It shouldn't be like one of golf's majors, where aging stars get in based on past performance.
It's time to rock the vote and take all the power to choose away from the fans.
After their big win in Orlando on Christmas Day, the Celtics have posted a 4-7 record, including last night's 99-90 dyspepsia-inducing defeat to the Dallas Mavericks. The four wins have come against a pair of teams hovering around .500 -- Toronto (twice) and Miami -- and the woeful New Jersey Nets. All teams they can beat on cruise control, which is what they're on while waiting for KG, who allegedly could return this Friday against Portland, to walk back through the TD Garden door.
Like most of us this time of year, when winter really sinks its teeth in and the days are gray and cold, the Celtics are looking ahead to brighter days, days in May and June, when ostensibly they'll still be playing deep into the NBA playoffs. The regular season is rote roundball for this team, whose sole purpose is putting Banner No. 18 in the rafters. You can't do that in January against Atlanta or Dallas, even if both of those teams are championship contenders.
It's all prologue for Doc Rivers's team. They know it, and that's the problem right now.
Rivers knows he needs to shake his team of the misguided notion that they'll be able to break their bad habits and play their best basketball on demand once Garnett, who has missed the last nine games, returns from his hyperextended right knee.
"No. Well, even if it does [fix the problems] it's everybody has to have better mental focus," said Rivers. "It can't be one guy. His voice will be back, but our actions have to return as well."
All the bad basketball buzzwords were used by Rivers and captain Paul Pierce following last night's loss to the Mavericks -- focus, mental toughness, consistency.
All of that was evident against Dallas. The Celtics allowed the Mavericks to shoot 66.7 percent in the second half, including an incredible 80 percent (16 of 20) in the third quarter. It wasn't just Dirk Nowitzki, who had 22 of his 37 points in the second half and put on a shooting show, much to the delight of Cedric Maxwell, who once committed hoops heresy here by saying Nowitzki is better than Larry Bird.
It was a total breakdown defensively. The Mavs, who shot 57.4 percent, a season high for a Celtics opponent, looked like they were holding a team shootaround in the second half. Shawn Marion had 12 of his 16 points and didn't have to make a shot outside of 10 feet. Erick Dampier had zero points in the first half and just one shot. He finished the game with 11 points on 5 of 6 shooting.
Even if Nowitzki is the 7-foot second coming of Larry Legend, the Celtics are too good a team defensively to allow that to take place.
"We got to play for 48 minutes. We're just not putting it all together. We're playing in spurts," said point guard Rajon Rondo.
"I thought we had 24 minutes of focus, and it's tough to win a game that way against a quality team," said Rivers.
It's been tougher for the Celtics to win against quality opponents, period. They're 27-12, three games off their pace from last season, but they're just 9-8 against teams with plus-500 records. So, two-thirds of their wins are against sub-.500 teams.
It goes without saying that you're not going to win an NBA title by only defeating David Stern's pedestrian and pathetic. Injuries obviously have been a factor for the Celtics. They lost 99 games to them, but they're not the only reason for Boston's lukewarm play of late.
"I think our focus is struggling of late," said Rivers. "With all the injuries and all the stuff that we've had I would take the record. I just wouldn't take the way we're playing. If someone told me with the injuries we've had and all the stuff we've had that this would be our record before the season started I would probably say, 'I'll take it.' Having said that I just don't like the way we're playing."
The Celtics have 11 games before the All-Star break, starting tomorrow night at the Palace of Auburn Hills against the Pistons. In those 11 games they'll play Portland, Orlando (twice), Atlanta and the Lakers, all teams that are well above .500. It is important for the Celtics to score some significant wins over championship-caliber competition heading into the break, whether Garnett is there or not.
While the Celtics are 21-5 when they have their starting five of KG, Kendrick Perkins, Pierce, Ray Allen and Rondo, they should be good enough with Wallace in place of Garnett to beat some of the NBA's best, if the Green are who we thought they were, to use a phrase from Dennis Green.
Wallace, who before the season predicted the Celtics would make a run at the 1995-96 Bulls record of 72 wins in a season, wasn't worried.
"No, I'm not worried about it at all, man," said 'Sheed. "Each team in this league goes through some pitfalls at some point in the season. No one has a perfect season, where everything goes right for them on defense and offense and you come out with the win. No, it's not like that. You know you're going to have some pitfalls and some trials and tribulations throughout the season, but the key of a good team is can you focus on the main goal and make it better?"
That's the problem. The Celtics are too focused on their long-term goal of winning a championship, instead of their short-term goal of winning games.
Maybe a little panic is just what they need.
It's painful to be a Boston athlete -- or sports fan -- these days. Maybe, there is something in the (dirty) water, but it seems like every time you peruse a story about one of the local professional sports outfits, it reads like the waiting list in the emergency room at Mass General.
Welcome to the Hub of Hurt, where the disabled list is only a day away.
We know that Boston has some of the finest medical facilities in the country, but that doesn't mean our local pro athletes have to use them. The NFL is planning to build a stadium to lure a franchise to Los Angeles in a place called the City of Industry, Boston has become the City of Injury. The injury bug has bitten the Hub like one of those vampires from the vapid "Twilight" series.
Let's assess the carnage.
The Celtics are at the point where they're going to have to start scouting local YMCAs to fill out their bench for tonight's game against the Chicago Bulls. Kevin Garnett has missed seven games with a hyperextended right knee and aptly named coach Doc Rivers said last night that the earliest Garnett could return is Wednesday against the Pistons. Rasheed Wallace was doing a bang-up job filling in for Garnett until he got banged up (sore foot). The Celtics ruled him out for tonight's game. Swingman Marquis Daniels had surgery Dec. 9 to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb and won't be back until after the All-Star break,
Let's not forget the mysterious knee infection that rendered Paul Pierce idle for two weeks. By the way, Pierce bruised his knee last night against the Nets. It was an omen for this Celtics season when forward Glen Davis broke his thumb in a fight with a friend on the eve of the season opener.
Maybe the Garden needs a triage set up because the Bruins have it just as bad, if not worse, than their arena mates. The Black and Gold are the Black and Blue. The Bruins have been playing shorthanded all year and what's left of the team is skating on the Left Coast.
The B's are without top center Marc Savard (sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee), leading scorer Patrice Bergeron (broken thumb) and defensemen Andrew Ference (torn groin) and Mark Stuart (broken sternum). All you need to know about the current state of the Bruins is that Milan Lucic is one of their healthy players.
The Patriots have plenty of time to heal up after being knocked out of the playoffs by the Ravens last Sunday. They'll need it. Quarterback Tom Brady had as many injuries (ribs, broken right ring finger, shoulder) as he did play-calling collaborators (Bill O'Brien, Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio). That terrible turf at Houston's Reliant Stadium robbed the Patriots of Wes Welker, who suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in the regular-season finale, and won't be ready for the start of the 2010 season.
Even the Red Sox, who haven't played a game since last October, have felt the sting of injuries in recent months. The Texas Rangers rescinded a trade for Mike Lowell after determining that Lowell's thumb injury was more serious than anyone realized. Lowell had surgery on the thumb -- the hands-down winner of the most damaged digit award -- to repair a torn ligament Dec. 30. Last week, pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka revealed he hid from the Sox that he injured his leg while training for the World Baseball Classic. So, technically that's a new injury.
Heck, even owners are not immune. Patriots owner Robert Kraft was spotted after New England's loss to the Ravens on crutches. Per Patriots policy, his injury is undisclosed, of course.
The way things are going around here I think I'm going to get carpal tunnel syndrome writing this sentence. It's a good thing that President Obama is overhauling health care using the Massachusetts universal model.
Injuries are the one great variable that can undermine the best-laid plans of any sports team. You can't see them coming, and you can't control them. The Patriots learned that the hard way in 2008, when Brady was lost for the season just 15 offensive snaps in with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee.
Looking back the turning point for the 1980s Celtics may have been Kevin McHale playing on a broken foot for the last three months of the 1986-87 season. He was never quite the same player and the Celtics never returned to the NBA Finals with the original Big Three.
The Red Sox might not have had to wait 86 years to break the Curse if it weren't for Vern Ruhle. Jim Rice missed the 1975 postseason after the Tigers' Ruhle plunked him with a pitch during the last week of the regular season, breaking his wrist.
Do you think the Bruins would still be working on a 37-year Stanley Cup drought if it weren't for Cam Neely's ossified hip? Probably not.
The team most in danger of having its season undermined by injuries is the Celtics. Unlike the Bruins or Patriots, they're a legitimate championship contender if healthy, but that is a big if. The Green already lost one opportunity to win Banner 18, after Garnett's knee relegated him to the role of spectator for the 2009 playoffs.
Rivers was asked what he'd like to see the team do at the trade deadline to improve. He reminded the media he hasn't seen his team yet.
“I love our team. I don’t think we’ve had our team intact all season, our top eight guys," said Rivers. "So I’m looking forward to actually seeing that group. I think we will, and it’s going to happen really soon and I’m really looking forward to that."
Hopefully, Rivers is right and the Celtics and their Boston pro sports brethren prove to be quick healers or it's going to hurt to be a Boston sports fan for a while.
Here are some last-minute gift ideas for each of the five major professional sports teams in town. Yes, Virginia, there is a professional soccer club in town. There is no more appropriate place to start when handing out Christmas gifts than with a team that has red stockings as its emblem.
The Red Sox have already done their holiday shopping, picking up shortstop Marco Scutaro, outfielder Mike Cameron and this year's big-ticket item, pitcher John Lackey. All the focus on improved defense and a stellar rotation is great, but you know deep down on Yawkey Way they'd like to find a big-time, big-name slugger. Let's give the Sox the one gift they really want (well, other than Hanley Ramirez back) -- a trade for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
Last year, the Sox missed out on the "it" toy of the off-season, Mark Teixeira. Gonzalez is in the prime of his career at age 27, wants to play for the Sox, has a swing tailor-made for Fenway and has an affordable contract the next two seasons ($4.5 million this season with a club option for $5.5 million in 2011). The last four seasons he has averaged 33 home runs and 100 RBI playing in Petco Park, which it so unfriendly to hitters it might as well be Yosemite National Park. During that same time Teixeira has averaged 34 home runs and 114 RBI.
The last three seasons, Petco Park has finished last or next to last in the majors in ballpark home run factor. During that time Gonzalez has hit .303 with 70 home runs on the road and .253 with 32 home runs on the road. His away slugging percentage is .595, while his home one is .434.
Stocking stuffer: How about the return of Jason Bay? That would relieve some of the pain of having to give up Jacoby Ellsbury to get Gonzalez.
Green and red are the Christmas colors. We've covered the Red Sox, so let's go to the Green.
The Celtics will be playing a Christmas Day game tomorrow against the Orlando Magic. The one gift they'd like is a healthy roster. The startling news yesterday that captain Paul Pierce could miss two weeks after having a procedure to treat a knee infection -- we all learned from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady how tricky knee infections can be -- added to the C's injury woes. Kevin Garnett, who appears to have recovered from the right knee injury that truncated his 2009 season, missed Tuesday night's game against Indiana with a right thigh bruise.
Boston is already without a pair of key reserves, Glen Davis, who broke his right thumb in an altercation with a friend on the eve of the season-opener, and forward/guard Marquis Daniels, who is out until the All-Star break after having surgery to repair a ligament in his left thumb.
The Celtics have an Eastern Conference-best 22-5 record, and with Rasheed Wallace and a healthy Daniels, their bench is arguably better than the one they have in 2008, when they won their 17th NBA title with James Posey, P.J. Brown and Eddie House, who is still in-house, coming off the pine. The only thing that could derail this team, which relies on a trio of superstars who are all 32 or older, is injuries. That was the case last season with Garnett. Remember that Celtics team had a 19-game winning streak at one point and was 44-11 before Garnett went down.
Stocking stuffer: A jump shot for Rajon Rondo. That's all that's preventing Rondo from reaching Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Deron Williams territory.
The Patriots are in position to give themselves a belated Christmas gift on Sunday -- an AFC East title -- with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. It hasn't always been a merry season for the Patriots, but unwrapping the division title would certainly bring some mirth to the House of Hoodie. But what this team could use is a third wide receiver.
Brady has completed 320 passes this year and 174, or 54.4 percent of them, have gone to either Moss or Welker. But that's not the problem. In 2007, Brady completed 52.8 percent of his passes to the dynamic duo. The third receiver spot has been a revolving door with Joey Galloway, Julian Edelman (really more of a slot receiver than a split end opposite Moss), Isaiah Stanback, and now Sam Aiken.
Stocking stuffer: The six-sack performance against Buffalo was great, but the Patriots still could use an elite pass rusher. Julius Peppers, anyone?
This is the season of light, but the Bruins have a hard time lighting the lamp this season. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has admitted he thought the team would score more and Congress has had an easier time hashing out health care reform than Claude Julien has had crafting line combinations.
After their six-goal outburst last night the Bruins are 24th in the NHL in goals per game at 2.53. Before the Thrashers game they were last in the NHL in goals scored with 85. Only Carolina and St. Louis have scored fewer. The Bruins don't have a player among the top 60 in the NHL in goals. Last season the Bruins were second in the NHL in goals per game (3.29), scoring 270. Injuries have sapped some of the juice out of the offense, as top center Marc Savard and left wing Milan Lucic have missed a combined 41 games. Before the season is over, the Bruins need a goal scorer. Atlanta scoring machine Ilya Kovalchuck would look good in Black and Gold, but his price tag is too high.
Stocking stuffer: One more puck-moving defenseman. Still wish the Bruins had gotten Tomas Kaberle in the Phil Kessel deal.
The Revolution are a major pro sports team in this town, even if you don't consider there to be anything Major League about Major League Soccer. What the Revolution need is a soccer-specific stadium, so they don't have to play in front of three-quarters empty Gillette Stadium, which has all the soccer ambiance of the Ted Williams Tunnel. MLS will have nine teams out of 16 with soccer-specific stadia in 2010. The league is adding the expansion Philadelphia Union.
Stocking stuffer: How about a few more people paying attention to the Revs?
No, I mean the idea that right now they have to root for two of the most intractable figures in all of professional sports -- Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss and Celtics power forward Rasheed Wallace -- and find a way to cover up their warts so they can feel good about doing it.
Here in the Hub of Homerism there is a parallel between the two immensely talented and immensely temperamental athletes. Both Moss and Wallace mix appreciable talent with recalcitrance. Both are capable of boorish behavior with the media and beloved by their teammates. Both were brought here by teams desperate to recapture championship glory, Wallace this summer and Moss in 2007.
It's a Dorian Gray-type deal for the teams and their fans. They're willing to sacrifice their souls a bit for unique talent. Wallace is the only player in NBA history to collect 100 blocks and 100 3-pointers in the same season multiple times -- four. Only Jerry Rice can match Moss's nine seasons with 10 or more touchdown receptions and only Rice exceeds Moss's 145 career touchdown receptions.
Both Moss and Wallace had their first real flareups with their new teams last week. On Dec. 13, Moss caught one ball, dropped two passes and failed to finish out an out route that ended up in a Tom Brady interception against the Carolina Panthers, the effort -- or alleged lack thereof -- coming four days after he was one of four players sent home for being late to an 8 a.m. team meeting.
Last Friday night, Wallace's combustible behavior reared its head. With the Celtics leading the Philadelphia 76ers, 42-29, in the second quarter, Wallace picked up a pair of technical fouls while on the bench and was booted from the game, but not before having to be restrained by Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau. Without Wallace coming off the bench, Sixers big men Elton Brand and Marreese Speights (combined 40 points and 18 rebounds) had their way and Philadelphia walked away with a 98-97 win.
When he was asked by reporters on Sunday whether he was upset with himself for being ejected, Wallace, who has nine technicals this year after having one rescinded by the NBA yesterday, expressed no remorse or regret.
“Nah, not really to answer your question. Honestly, I wasn’t. I still play my game. I ain’t changing my game for nobody," said Wallace, who set an NBA record with 41 technical fouls in 2001 and led the league last season with 17.
That's being honest. If you expected Wallace or Moss to change then you're not. We had Manny being Manny and now we have Randy being Randy and 'Sheed being 'Sheed.
It's delusion bordering on hypocrisy to believe that the behavior of Wallace and Moss would be different or better because they're one of us now, that their past issues had to do with playing for dysfunctional teams like the Trail Blazers or the Raiders.
Wallace and Moss haven't changed. Only our tolerance for them and their behavior has because they're wearing the appropriate laundry now. They're the same guys you booed, or despised, or said, "[Insert team here] wins because we don't have guys like that." Only now we're willing to look the other way, just like their teammates and coaches, because in the end we believe their pros outweigh their cons.
Wallace said as much on Sunday, saying he has more pros than cons and "my worst con is my attitude sometimes."
"You know who you are," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "Everybody you get hopefully you've done enough research on, and you know what they do as a player, off the court and in the locker room. You know, minus the refs, everything [Rasheed] does is great. So, what you have to do is you have to weigh it, and is that enough? Absolutely, it is."
If not, the Celtics wouldn't have signed Wallace to a three-year deal to provide them with the shooting touch and size they clearly lacked off the bench last year against Orlando in the playoffs. If Wallace had the talent/impact on the game of Ricky Davis, he wouldn't be plying his trade on the parquet. If Moss were only as good as Terry Glenn, he'd be running a permanent out route from Fort Foxborough.
It should come as no surprise that both Moss and Wallace bounced back from their attitude episodes. They always do. Moss, playing with the weight of the world on his shoulders, played his you-know-what off against the Bills in an effort that was much better than the five receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown indicated.
The defining play of the game for Moss came in the third quarter. With Brady under pressure on a blitz by Bills linebacker Chris Draft, the quarterback tossed an ill-advised pass across the field that appeared destined for the arms of Buffalo cornerback Terrence McGee. Instead, Moss came flying out of nowhere, catapulted into the air and snared the ball while crashing into McGee to turn an interception into a 16-yard reception. That drive ended with a 30-yard field goal.
Wallace returned on Sunday against the Minnesota Timberwolves and had 10 points, 4 rebounds, and a block in 20 minutes of action as the Celtics rolled to a 122-104 win.
All is well and all is forgotten, until the next time there is some issue, and we're all too willing to be convinced that there is no issue at all. That it's simply that we haven't seen the coaches tape or weren't on the bench.
Wallace is 35. Moss is 32. They're too old to change. They're never going to be Trot Nixon or Troy Brown types, so don't make them out to be that. At this point, it's no more their fault issues arise with their on-court comportment (Wallace) or on-field effort (Moss) than it is that the sun rises. They've been enabled far too long.
You either accept them -- and root for them -- warts and all or you don't accept the truth about them.
As all Patriots fans -- well, almost all Patriots fans (more on that later) -- know by now the team is officially 1-5 on the road this season. Even that one win has an asterisk -- or maybe that funky British pound sign -- next to it since it came in what was a neutral site game in London against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We could debate whether this counts as an actual road win or not all day. Full disclosure, I've changed my tune on this.
It certainly was a long road trip, that's for sure. But the fact remains that the Patriots' are 0-5 in road games that don't involve passports or pence and they don't have any more of those on the schedule.
The Patriots clearly need a little help when it comes to reversing their fortunes away from Foxborough. So let's go to the Boston professional sports team that has been right at home away from it -- the Celtics. While the Patriots have found the road rough, the Celtics, who are 20-4 overall, have been visiting victors, posting a 12-1 road record, the best in the NBA.
Doc Rivers's team's lone road loss came against the Indiana Pacers in Conseco Fieldhouse, a game that was played the night before and a few blocks away from the Patriots' self-immolation inside Lucas Oil Stadium. Since then, the Celtics, winners of 11 straight heading into tonight's home tilt with the Philadelphia 76ers, have won eight in a row on the road.
Rivers and Patriots coach Bill Belichick have a mutual admiration society. Rivers has borrowed Belichick's famous "Do you job" line and Belichick and many of his players have been visible at Celtics playoff games the last few years.
Does Doc have any advice for Belichick on how to wrangle a road win?
"No, I'm taking advice from Bill if I can get it. I don't think he needs any from me," said Rivers, following yesterday's Celtics practice. "They'll figure it out. The only time you need to win one is when the playoffs start, so that's the good news."
Yes, it is, but the bad news is that the Patriots won't make the playoffs if they don't score a road win in the good old US of A.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who has also been known to take in a Celtics game with the missus, has already said that the Patriots can't afford to lose to the Bills and expect to make the playoffs.
A second postseason without the Patriots would be a major downer for Celtics shooting guard Ray Allen, a Patriots fan since his days at the University of Connecticut. Allen said he wasn't aware that his favorite football team was winless in real road games this season.
When advised of the situation, he took umbrage with the idea that the win over the Buccaneers in Wembley Stadium doesn't count.
"That's still on the road, though," said Allen, truly sounding like a Patriots fan.
So, as a Patriots fan is Allen worried about the Patriots road woes? He said no, citing the quality of opponent the Patriots have faced (the Jets, Broncos, Colts, Saints and Dolphins all have winning records and the Colts and Saints are undefeated) and his belief that they're still one of the best teams in football.
So far the Patriots are getting a lot of moral support here from the Green, but not a lot of help. C'mon guys you got to have something to help your New England sports neighbors.
How about letting them take your team plane to Buffalo? You won't need it until Christmas Eve, when you go to Orlando for a Christmas Day game against the Magic. That will mark the start of a four-game road trip that will literally have you going from coast to coast with games against the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns.
"All those guys couldn't fit on our team plane. They couldn't fit on our team plane," said Allen with a grin.
How about sartorial suggestions? Forget about the "Pat Patriot" throwbacks, which the team wore the first time they played Buffalo at Gillette. Those uniforms have proved unlucky in road losses to Denver and Miami.
"Green is pretty lucky. We should just throw some green their way, put on some green jerseys," said Allen. "Put some green somewhere on their jerseys. Somebody wear some green socks. Everybody wear some green shoes or get a clover on their jersey."
The Patriots have had some, er, problems with their mascot lately; maybe the Celtics can lend them Lucky for a spell.
"We're keeping Lucky, that's for darn sure," said Rivers. "He's a good one."
All kidding aside, the Patriots have to do something to find a way to win on the road. They're already guaranteed of posting their first losing record on the road and worst road record since 2000, Belichick's first season as coach. They went 2-6 away from Foxborough that season.
With a win in Buffalo and in the season finale at Houston, the Patriots could finish 3-5 on the road, counting their trip to London as a road win, and the history of teams with losing road records winning the Super Bowl is not good. The only team this decade to win a Super Bowl without a winning road record is the Colts, who went 4-4 on the road in 2006.
“We need a road win because if we want to get where we want to get we’re going to need a win on the road,” said running back Kevin Faulk.
Faulk is right. The Patriots either need to find a way to win away or in January they'll be ceding the Boston sports stage to a team that can, the Celtics.
You just get the sense that the Celtics started sleepwalking, awaiting the next real challenge and just content to roll out a good quarter here or a good quarter there to put lesser teams -- or perceived lesser teams -- away. Teams as talented as the Celtics can get away with that, until they meet teams equally as talented.
Tonight, is the opportune time for the Celtics to shake off their early-season ennui because the defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic are in town for the teams' first meeting of the season. This isn't just Game 13 of 82 for both teams, who enter with identical 9-3 marks, it's an opportunity to make a statement.
The Celtics rivalry with the Cavaliers might be considered sexier simply because of the presence of LeBron James, but the NBA knows the value of the Celtics-Magic matchup. The respect for the rivalry is obvious, considering the next time the teams will meet after tonight is in Orlando on Christmas Day, which is always filled with commissioner David Stern's showcase games.
"A lot has been given to us and Cleveland to start off the year, but Atlanta and Orlando are other teams to reckon with," said Celtics guard Ray Allen. "It's not like it's something that is going to be handed to any one of us. ... But they look good, and we know they're a team that we're going to have to reckon with and will most likely see in the postseason."
Let's get something straight right now. If the Celtics play the brand of basketball they displayed in losses to Atlanta and Indiana and in Wednesday's win over the rudderless Golden State Warriors, then they're not going to beat Orlando tonight or in the postseason and they know it.
"Yeah, we can't play the way we played the last few games and expect to be the top-tier team," said forward Paul Pierce. "I mean that's the reason they're a top-tier team because they're a team that is not going to beat themselves. You got to go out there and make them play and go out there and beat them. If you have mental lapses for one or two quarters you can easily get blown out. If you look at it, they've blown some teams out and it hasn't been close some of their games when they've been healthy."
That's what is exciting about tonight's visit from Dwight Howard and the Magic. It's an opportunity to see just how good this Celtics team really is and can be. It's obvious that they think they're good and that's been part of the problem so far this season.
There is no reason the Magic, who come in as winners of three straight and boast a roster as deep as any team in the NBA, shouldn't bring out the best in the Green. Motivation will not be an issue.
The last time Orlando ventured to the Garden, the Magic sent the Kevin Garnett-less Celtics packing with a resounding 101-82 victory in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. That capped a Magic comeback from 3-2 down, the first time in the storied history of the Celtics that they lost a series when leading 3-2. Orlando went on to beat Cleveland in six games before being part of Kobe Bryant's coronation in the NBA Finals.
Garnett, who missed the playoffs with bone spurs in his right knee, was asked how he felt after Game 7 last season and his answer said it all:
"Pissed. Probably like everybody else. Pissed. Very pissed."
The Celtics insisted yesterday -- unconvincingly -- that this isn't Game 8 of last year's playoff series for them. Whether they mean it or not, they're right. It can't be. Both teams have changed too much from last spring.
Boston got KG back to anchor its defense and remade its roster with Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels and the surprising Shelden Williams, in large part to combat Orlando's size, length and athleticism up front with Howard, who is a cross between Shawn Kemp and a young Moses Malone, and sharpshooting Rashard Lewis.
Orlando lost Hedo Turkoglu, who had 25 points and 12 assists in Game 7, but traded for Vince Carter to replace him. Shrewd Magic general manager Otis Smith also went out and signed forward Brandon Bass from Dallas, underrated swing man Matt Barnes (he is James Posey without the 3-point range) and exhumed Randy Moss's old running mate in West Virginia, Jason Williams, to play backup point guard. With Jameer Nelson out 4-6 weeks with torn cartilage in his left knee, J-Will is now the point man for the Magic.
Of course amid all the changes, the biggest difference is that this time the Celtics have Garnett. KG could only sit idly by in a suit and watch as the undersized Celtics struggled to stop the Magic's inside-out attack with the 6-foot-10-inch Lewis shooting over the top of Glen Davis.
Lewis was suspended for the first 10 games of the season for testing positive for an elevated testosterone level. He had a near triple-double in his second game back (17 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists), despite sitting out the entire fourth quarter of Orlando's 108-94 win over Oklahoma City on Wednesday night.
Garnett chuckled to himself when he was asked whether he was looking forward to playing Orlando.
"I'm not a vengeful person. I'm just looking forward to playing them," said Garnett. "They're considered one of the best teams, so we're going to rate ourselves and grade ourselves on that and trying to play better."
Win or lose, Orlando might provide just the wake-up call the slumbering Celtics need.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.